The James Clayton Column: Liam Neeson’s lost identity

Unknown sees Liam Neeson stuck in the middle of an identity crisis. James’ advice? Follow the example of acting chameleon Johnny Depp…

In the film, Unknown, a man who looks and sounds remarkably like Liam Neeson suddenly finds himself in very distressing circumstances. Landing in Berlin, this middle-aged American male gets into the back of a taxi that’s subsequently struck by a low-flying fridge, which sends the vehicle crashing off a bridge and into a river.

These sorts of freak incidents involving unsecured white goods can happen. This is why it’s essential to take out travel insurance.

Waking up in hospital after four days in a coma, the man is shaken, his memory a little hazy and there’s no sign of his beloved wife who arrived with him in Germany. He’s also lost all forms of identification, his passport, phone, driving license, etc., but he knows who he is. He is Dr Martin Harris and he’s flown into Berlin to attend a biotechnology convention where he’s giving a presentation.

He leaves hospital and heads to the hotel and all would be fine were it not for the fact that, when he gets there, his wife claims she has no idea who he is. What’s even worse is that she’s with another man who claims that he is, in fact, Dr Martin Harris. His name badge says so, and are you going to trust a visibly injured and affected man without ID over an official laminated name tag?

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Nevertheless, our main character refuses to give up his identity, such is his conviction that he is who he says he is and not some deluded or insane imposter as others are implying. Repeatedly bellowing, “I am Martin Harris!” contrary to all evidence, Unknown unrolls as a tale of a vulnerable individual fighting for what he believes is right in the face of overwhelming opposition in a strange, foreign land.

When you view it that way and hear all the “I am Martin Harris!” proclamations, Unknown actually sounds more like Spartacus than a conspiracy thriller.

In this predicament, our harassed hero gets his “I am Spartacus!” moments and a unique European city break of exhilarating car chases and gritty experiences of Berlin off the tourist trail. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be much advantage in clinging to the idea that he’s Dr Harris. This claim only brings emotional distress and a whole lot of danger. Soon, the doubted American is hanging around with illegal immigrants and Stasi spies and fleeing from tough henchmen who keep showing up intent on forcefully neutralising him.

Regardless of his scheduled biotech presentation, in the face of all the hassle, it would have perhaps been safer to just keep silent and accept hospital bed rest under the care of Nurse Gretchen instead.

Unknown also shares similarities with Rango, in that both flicks deal with the issue of identity and are set in motion by a surprise automobile accident.

The titular chameleon starts out as a lonely pet lizard on a long distance car journey. He lacks purpose and a proper sense of self. His sad existence revolves around talking to himself and staging his own plays with a cast of inert props (including a wind-up fish toy and a dismembered, mutilated Barbie doll). Without intervention from the RSC or RSPCA, the imaginative wild animal looks doomed to dull domestic despair.

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When he falls out the back window and is left stranded in the desert, though, Rango’s narrative, and life, really begins. Encountering the critters of the dehydrated town of Dirt, he adopts a fresh persona, seizes the opportunity of a new identity and becomes somebody with a story. (And it’s a great story worthy of being immortalised in song by a band of mariachi owls.)

Rango not only manages to save his scaly skin by adapting and putting on an incredible acting performance, but also breaks through existential block. There’s a lesson here for the lost lead male in Unknown: channel the Spirit of the Chameleon.

Like iconic musicians who’ve reinvented themselves to find fresh relevance (The Beatles, David Bowie, Madonna, etc.), individuals can achieve success and self-realisation if they grasp that character is a fluid, mutable concept and just go with the flow of metamorphosis.

Observe Johnny Depp, the voice of Rango, as an example of how constantly shifting and changing can bring so many positives as opposed to conservatively clinging to one identity. Why tread water and stick with the same old same old when there’s a whole world of exciting personalities and costume change possibilities out there?

You can be whoever you want to be and probably should overhaul your image or entire persona when you’re bored or at risk of being beaten up by mysterious bad guys in an isolated Berlin car park.

Consider the chameleon-style of Depp and see how, if you were so inclined, you could become a rock star pirate. You could hit the road and be reborn as a drug-tripping gonzo journalist on a frenzied odyssey to find the dark heart of the American Dream. You could be a singing demon barber or a B-movie transvestite. You have a choice and freedom to define yourself and your life.

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If I’d had the chance to talk to “Martin Harris” in his hospital bed at the beginning of Unknown, I’d have urged him to forget himself and give life under a new name a shot. I’d have held up a mirror and pointed out just how similar to Liam Neeson he looks, as I outlined the wide array of alternatives to being Dr Martin Harris, biotechnological scientist. Plus, when people reckon that it’s impossible for him to be Dr Harris, he can go wild and really ridiculous with his choice of new persona.

For all the world cares he could be Rob Roy, Alfred Kinsey, the expert sexologist, or the gallant Sir Gawain, Knight of the Round Table.  He could pass himself off as Priest Vallon of the Dead Rabbits clan, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn or Ra’s al Ghul of the League of Shadows and the scourge of Gotham City.

He could stand up and declare himself to be Hannibal of The A-Team, Aslan the leonine messiah of Narnia, Fujimoto the Ocean King or even Oskar Schindler, humanitarian hope through the Holocaust.

Why, in fact, would you want to be Martin Harris when you can be Zeus, almighty God of Olympus?

I’d dare him to drop his identity like a bad habit and take up a new persona. Just stand up on the Brandenburg Gate in your underwear and shout, “I am Spartacus!” I dare you.

James’ previous column can be found here.

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