by Mel Valentin
Two years ago, "Taken," a modestly budgeted, Paris-set, action-thriller produced by prolific writer-director-producer Luc Besson starring Liam Neeson, arrived in multiplexes as an afterthought for 20th Century Fox. Fox delayed the release of "Taken" for almost a year (it was available through legal and illicit means before the stateside release). Audiences, however, responded to "Taken’s" primal revenge plot centered on Neeson’s convincing turn as an ex-CIA operative on the hunt for the Eastern Europeans who kidnapped his vacationing daughter and her best friend. "Taken’s" surprising box-office haul ($145 million in North America alone) made another action-oriented role for Neeson, either in a direct sequel or a similarly premised film, inevitable. All of which leads us to "Unknown."Unknown, centers Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), a university-based scientist and researcher and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones), travelling to Berlin for a high-profile biotechnology conference sponsored by a wealthy, progressive Middle Easterner, Prince Shada (Mido Hamada). One of Harris’ Europe-based colleagues (someone he’s never met in person), Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch), is expected to announce a major scientific breakthrough at the conference. In the rush to grab a cab for the hotel from the airport, Harris leaves his briefcase (and, in the briefcase, his passport), behind. Harris leaves Elizabeth behind at the hotel and grabs a cab driven by a Bosnian immigrant, Gina (Diane Kruger). On the way back to the airport, Gina, swerving to avoid hitting a refrigerator knocked loose from a truck, drives off a bridge and into the river below.
"Hell have no fury like Liam Nesson scorned in a paycheck role."
Gina saves Harris from the rapidly sinking cab, but disappears (the reason becomes clear later on). After four days in a coma, Harris wakes up in a German hospital. Without his passport, Harris only has his own word to identify himself. Perplexed by Elizabeth’s inaction at his disappearance, Harris heads to the hotel. There, however, Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge he’s her husband, instead introducing him to another Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). Every attempt to prove his identify failing, Harris begins to question his sanity, but the appearance of first one, then two, trained assassins suggests otherwise. While evading his pursuers, Harris searches for Gina and, on the advice of a nurse, seeks out the help of an elderly detective, Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz).
Although Unknown shares some similarities with Taken, most of them are superficial and tangential. The “fish out of water”/”stranger in a strange land” theme, Neeson’s wronged character using violence to obtain answers and/or defend himself, may be the same in both films, but where Taken dispensed with momentum-slowing plot complications, Unknown, adapted by screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell from Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel, “Out of My Head,” seems to revel in them. Taken succeeded because, like many revenge-oriented thrillers before it, it honed in on a simple, but no less primal or visceral, plot, and let Neeson, or rather Neeson’s character, do what he did best: wreaking havoc on anyone and everyone who stood between him and reuniting with his daughter.
The action in Unknown occurs in periodic bursts until the third act when, as expected, Harris, finally solving the questions surrounding his identity, turns the proverbial table on the men who’ve been trying to kill him for most of Unknown’s running time. Unknown includes the by-now-obligatory car chase through Berlin streets. It’s well choreographed by director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Goal II: Living the Dream, House of Wax) and his stunt team, but it’s also far more memorable. Harris proves himself inexplicably expert in hand-to-hand-combat, but that “inexplicably” becomes “explicable” in the third act. Patient moviegoers will receive most of the answers to their questions, spoon-fed to them by the late entrance of a minor character, Rodney Cole, played by Frank Langella (collecting a paycheck like everyone else).
To describe Unknown as a cross between Taken and another well known film or two (or three) would risk major spoilage, but, playing it safe for any spoilerphobes who might be reading this review, it’s safe to call Unknown as a cross between Taken and The Bourne Identity or as a cross between Taken and the 1988 Roman Polanski directed suspense-thriller Frantic (Frantic featured Harrison Ford as an American whose wife disappears on a trip to Paris), specifically the burgeoning relationship between Harris and Gina when they cross paths a second (and third) time.But with slow-moving first and second acts, action concentrated in the third act, an implausible plot that veers into the improbable and, finally, the impossible (centered, apparently, on Harris’ initial oversight, an oversight he shouldn’t have made given what we learn about him), a flimsy hook (centered on Harris’ scrambled, impartial memories), an underdeveloped relationship between Harris and Gina, at least one bland performance (meaning January Jones), and an unsatisfying denouement that leaves at least one or two key questions, and the end result fails to approximate "Taken’s" pleasures, guilty or otherwise, stateside audiences experienced two years ago.
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originally posted: 02/18/11 12:00:00