Unknown (2011)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/18/11 05:39:34
As those of you who have seen the incessant commercials for “Unknown” know, the film is a thriller in which Liam Neeson playing a seemingly ordinary man suffering from amnesia who is struggling to uncover the mystery of who he is while doing battle with people who inexplicably deny that he is who he says he is and who even more inexplicably want him dead. This is all vaguely interesting stuff in theory, especially if you have a taste for big, dumb action spectaculars that spend more time on visceral thrills than narrative logic but that central mystery pales in comparison to the question of who Neeson himself is supposed to be these days. Once upon a time, he was a highly respected actor best known for his galvanizing portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and while he would occasionally make a detour into more commercial areas of filmmaking--such as “The Phantom Menace,” “Batman Begins” or “Kingdom of Heaven”--you got the sense that he was brought in because the producers hoped that his presence would lend a dramatic heft to the proceedings in the same way that Marlon Brando gave a near-Shakespearian aura to the opening scenes of “Superman.” A couple of years ago, however, all that changed when he was cast as the ass-kicking lead in the Luc Besson action extravaganza “Taken” and it went on to become an unexpected smash hit around the world. Ever since then, he seems to have put more artistic pursuits by the wayside in order to take on one presumably high-paying action gig after another, including the likes of “Clash of the Titans,” “The A-Team” and the upcoming screen adaptation of the board game “Battleship” (which will find him sharing the screen with such noted thespians as Rhianna and Brooklyn Decker). “Unknown” may be somewhat better than most of the other stuff he has been wasting his time and talent on as of late (though the jury is still out on “Battleship,” of course) but even at its best, it never comes close to reaching the peaks of “Taken,” the film that it clearly wants to be in every way, shape and form, and when all is said and done, it is hard to know what is worse--the fact that it is no “Taken” or that Neeson himself apparently never noticed or cared about that particular detail before signing on.In the film, Neeson plays brilliant botanist Martin Harris and as it opens, he and wife Elizabeth (January Jones) are just arriving in Berlin for an important biotechnology conference. Alas, once they reach their hotel, Martin discovers that his all-important briefcase was left behind and jumps into a cab that soon swerves off of a bridge and plunges into the river. Martin is pulled to safety but when he emerges from a coma four days later, he only has vague memories of who he is and what has happened. He rushes back to the hotel to find Elizabeth but when he does, she claims to have absolutely no idea who he is and even produces another man (Aidan Quinn) who insists that he is the real Martin Harris and has all the paperwork to prove it. At first, Martin is half-convinced that he is indeed somehow mistaken but after nearly being killed by mysterious thugs who have been following him, he goes on a desperate pursuit to uncover who he really is and why nobody he knows claims to recognize him with the help of the only two people willing to believe his story--Gina (Diane Kruger), the illegal immigrant cabbie who picked him up for his fateful ride and saved his life and Juergen (Bruno Ganz), a former Stasi agent turned detective who agrees to get to the bottom of Martin’s increasingly strange and twisted case and learn whether he is indeed a simple botanist with memory problems or something far more sinister.
Although it takes the characters most of the running time to puzzle out who and what Martin is, most audience members will probably figure it out for themselves fairly early on in the proceedings. In fact, the end result seems so obvious for so long that as I was watching the film, I just naturally assumed that it was deliberately misdirecting viewers and that it had one big final twist in store that would throw everything into a new light. Unfortunately, it turns out that the screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell isn’t nearly as clever as it wishes it were--instead of trying to throw viewers for a loop with unexpected twists and turns, it is content to simply kill time with endless scenes of car crashes and fistfights that are peppered with allusions to any number of other, better films (none of which I will name because to do so might give the game away). This is disappointing because there are few things in the world more frustrating to a moviegoer than a seemingly complex thriller in which they are always several steps ahead of the characters on the screen instead of vice versa. What makes it especially frustrating is the fact that “Unknown” was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose previous effort was “Orphan,” a seemingly ordinary B-level horror movie that concluded with one of the more audacious plot twists in recent memory. Based on that, I kept hoping that he would pull something equally bizarre out of his hat that would push the film on to the next level but he apparently decided (or had it decided for him) to play by the rules this time around. What makes this especially irritating is that there are moments when it seems as though the story is about to branch out into strange and unknown territories but in every case, it shies away from the potentially audacious choice in order to embrace the conventional.
And yet, while “Unknown” never quite makes it to the next level in the way that “Taken” or “The Bourne Identity,” to name two of its most obvious antecedents, did, it is never less than more or less watchable. Although Collet-Serra never gets to reach the heights of insanity that he did with “Orphan,” he keeps things moving along in a smooth and efficient manner without ever getting bogged down in the numerous plot contrivances and does an adequate job of staging and executing the numerous action set-pieces. Likewise, while the screenplay doesn’t exactly break any new ground and grows more and more implausible as it goes on, it does offer the occasionally amusing self-aware pokes at its own implausibility and presents one scene between Ganz and Frank Langella, who turns up in the late innings as a mentor of Martin’s who comes to Berlin in order to aid his protégé, that is perhaps the best scene to be included in a not-so-great thriller since the shootout in the Guggenheim in “The International.” And while Neeson is essentially coasting here in what is obviously just a paycheck job, he still brings enough intelligence to the role to make it a little more plausible than it might have been had it been cast with an ordinary action star. Most of the other performances are low-key and reasonably effective (though it is a bit of a stretch to accept the relentlessly glamorous Kruger as the downtrodden immigrant cabbie) but the weak link in the cast, the weak link of the entire film, in fact, is easily January Jones, whose work is so stilted and unbelievable that you can practically here a clunk in the background after every one of her line readings--how is it possible for a performer to be so strong and convincing in one role, as she is on “Mad Men,” and yet be as astoundingly awkward and unbelievable as she is here?“Unknown” is one of those movies that walks such a fine line between good and bad that it is almost impossible to decide whether I should recommend it or not. On the one hand, it has a few strong moments here and there and it has been made with enough technical skill to keep viewers sort of interested as it moves along. On the other hand, it never takes that extra step that might have allowed it to become a genuinely memorable film in its own right. Is it worth the price of admission? Probably not--it is, in the end, just a little too ordinary and derivative for its own good. That said, it isn’t completely without merit and those who go into it with lowered expectations may find it to be entertaining enough on a simple meat-and-potatoes level to be worth the price of a matinee ticket or a rental when it hits DVD in a few months. “Unknown” is not a great movie by any standard--or even a good one in many respects--but to its credit, there are times when it thankfully doesn’t seem to realize that.
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