February 20, 2011

Movie Review: Unknown (2011)

Between this and Taken, Liam Neeson should probably consider avoiding Europe. It does not seem to agree with him. Whenever he crosses the pond bad things seem to happen that find him fighting bad guys and figuring out widespread conspiracies. No matter how you look at it, Europe is bad for his health. Fortunately, we all know he is quite resilient and if he wants to keep making these types of movies I am all for it. What I am trying to say is that while not perfect, Unknown is a thrilling ride into pulpy thriller territory. It has some interesting subtext, but this is all about the surface, any deep interest is just a by-product. We don't want to think too much. It is feels a lot like a Luc Besson production.

Despite the fact this is being marketed as another Taken, do not think of this as Taken II. This actually has a lot more in common with The Bourne Identity than anything else. The big difference is that while I felt involved with the story as it unfolded, I cannot say I was as invested as I was with the Matt Damon film. With Unknown, it is more about the style, the performance, the ride, it is not about the underlying depth. It is a movie that wants to take you a ride, put you in someone else's shoes and trick you into thinking you are watching something intelligent.

Unknown is proof that a movie can make you live in the moment, enjoy it in spite of its flaws and still leave you with a little substance to chew on afterwards. Whether you want to chew on plot holes, inconsistencies, or the ideas the movie brings up, or even talk about the movie making itself is irrelevant. If you leave satisfied, it has done its job. Well, consider that mission accomplished.

Liam Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris and he has traveled to Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), for a biotech conference. They leave the airport as the camera ominously shows us a forgotten briefcase. At the hotel, Martin realizes the mix up and grabs a cab back to the airport.

While on his way back an accident lands the taxi in an icy river. The quick thinking cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), saves him and then slips away. Martin wakes up four days later, rushes back to the hotel and finds his wife doesn't know who he is. More than that, he husband is Martin Harris, but a completely different Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). Wow, consider Martin Harris's mind blown.

Harris finds himself turning Berlin inside out trying to prove he is who he is. This goes on while a backdrop of scientific and international intrigue sprouts around the biotech conference. What does it all mean? I can hardly tell you that lest I tell you the twists and turns of the movie.

I could tell you more but then I would be revealing the true absurdity of the movie. It's big twist is hung on a gossamer thread. Add to that the inexplicable actions of the bad guy, you know talking about the situation rather than just shooting the hero. There is a lot of ridiculous and coincidental happenings. Fortunately, I never really thought about it until the movie had ended.

Unknown is a movie that surges forward at a pretty constant rate, it never slows down to allow you time to think about what is happening. Liam Neeson presents a compelling screen presence and has the skill to draw you in and become invested in his plight. Diane Kruger is also effective as the Bosnian immigrant just trying to stay alive. The acting is not entirely effective as January Jones was pretty terrible as Elizabeth Harris. She is a blank slate, a wooden board, empty, soulless, all of the above. I just could not buy her at all.

The movie was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra as his follow up to the excellent Orphan. Now, this does not quite reach the heights of that film, but he demonstrates his ability to tell an exciting story in an intelligent fashion even if the material does not necessarily deserve it.

I have to be honest, I really enjoyed this movie. I loved the look at Neeson's face when he was getting really angry, reminded me of his crazy face in Darkman. I liked the twist. I did not entirely work, but it was a little different. I liked Frank Langella, even if he was just there to explain stuff, and when paired with Bruna Ganz? Excellent. Diane Kruger is great in this, perhaps a touch underused early, but she is mesmerizing. I like the story and the way it ultimately plays out.

Is this a great movie? No. It is also not likely to be remembered down the line, but it is good in the moment. Sometimes that is all that we need.


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