Monday, July 25, 2011
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz, Sebastian Koch
Running Time: 113 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Unknown boasts an intriguing premise that allows the viewer to speculate all the potential outcomes before arriving at one I didn't consider, not necessarily because it's so clever, but because I lost interest by the time it arrived. Considering the script puts all its eggs in one basket and nearly writes itself into a corner by having to deliver huge, the big twist isn't disappointing, but a lot of things leading up to it are. It's okay to make a dumb movie, but not a dumb one that pretends to be smart. Liam Neeson's last outing in the genre, 2008's Taken grasped that concept and the result was a fun, goofy, thrilling ride praised by (including myself) for knowing exactly what it had to do. It's tough to watch this and not think of that, Hithcock's thrillers, Harrison Ford's Frantic and even 1997's The Game, from which this film partially borrows its concept and even a few choice scenes. Of course this greatly suffers from those comparisons by not really exploring the full ramifications of what it claims to be about. But there's no mistaking that this idea, if executed to its maximum potential, could have been gold and Neeson again delivers the goods as an everyman action hero. The final 30 minutes or so of Unknown are exciting, but less exciting when you realize any outcome wouldn't have made the least bit of difference or fixed its bigger problems, like a horrid supporting performance from an Emmy nominated actress who may want to prepare her Razzie acceptance speech instead.
Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist arriving in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) to give a speech at a biotechnology summit. After forgetting his briefcase back at the airport he takes a taxi that crashes off of a bridge into the river, but his driver, a Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger) saves him before fleeing the scene. After awaking on Thanksgiving day in the hospital after four days in a coma, Martin tracks down Liz, who not only has no recollection of who he is, but is with another man (Aidan Quinn) calling himself "Martin Harris" and assuming his entire identity. Besides knowing details only the real Martin would know, the impostor even has family photos of his face replacing Martin's and legitimate ID. With no physical proof of who he is, Martin gets nowhere with police before enlisting the help of private investigator Herr Jurgen (Bruno Ganz) who tries to help him piece together what could have happened, who did it, and why he's being trailed by mysterious assassins. He soon re-involves cab driver Gina, suspecting she knows more than she's letting on and attempts to contact former colleague Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), who could have the answers he's looking for.
Right away, it's clear there are only a few directions the story can go and possible payoffs that explain what's happened to Martin since that cab ride. Without spoiling anything, you'd figure it has to be one of the following:
1. He's fallen into a shadowy conspiracy or witnessed something he shouldn't have, likely related to his work in the biotech field. Evil, powerful corporate types have stolen his identity and now they want him dead.
2. He's actually not Martin Harris. He has amnesia.
3. He didn't survive the cab accident. None of this is happening.
4. None of the above. Something else we didn't see coming.
Those four scenarios don't offer a lot to work with, with #1 possibly being the most disappointing if only because it's so predictable and ordinary. The other options aren't great either (2 and 3 border on infuriating) so that kind of leaves screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Cornwell in a jam unless they can fill in #4 with some kind of shocking reveal that turns the story on its head, changing the story's complexity and making a larger thematic point about identity. But it's clear there's no ambition here that reaches further than making your standard boilerplate action movie, so that begs the question as to why you'd dangle a carrot like that in front of your audience while wasting opportunities along the way. Diane Kruger's cabbie could be considered this film's version of Deborah Kara Unger's mysterious waitress in The Game (whose motivations were wisely kept in the dark until the final credits), except for the fact that this script tips its hand way too early in revealing her purpose and she's hardly an active agent in the story. Kruger's performance is fine but she's just being dragged along (sometimes literally) for the ride by Neeson's character as they run from the baddies,without once fearing for their safety since it feels like a buddy flick. As he was in Taken, Neeson is suberb and completely believable in another ass-kicking role, and it's worth noting few actors have supposedly "sold out" as well, bringing much needed gravitas to franchise movies like The Phantom Menace, Batman Begins and even last year's The A-Team. He continues his late-career action hero run here and none of the film's flaws reflect on him. In fact, his intensity manages to hide many of them.
If any blame falls on a performer it's January Jones whose blank expression, flat line readings (that do very much feel only like line recitations) and droll delivery make you wonder if she's emotionally present in her scenes at all, or even awake. Anyone familiar with her as an actress (or caught her unfortunate SNL hosting gig) knows that unless she's playing a variation on her ice queen Betty Draper character from Mad Men she tends to really struggle. What's strange is that this is kind of similar to that so it's surprising she wrestles this much with a role that's clearly supporting, but still pivotal. As the plot unfolds and her character takes a dramatic shift, she falters big time, taking the tension in what should be the most suspenseful (but is instead the most unintentionally hilarious) scene in the film down a few notches with her sleepiness. As Martin's mysterious friend from the past, Frank Langella again plays a shadowy figure reminiscent of his better developed character in The Box, minus the facial disfigurement. He's saddled with the unenviable task of delivering truckloads of expository dialogue explaining the big payoff, which does make more sense than expected given the circumstances. Unfortunately, the resolution following that isn't as successful and more in line with the usual action plotting that came before.
It's best to call this what it is: An attempted sequel to Taken. Only this time the protagonist's identity is stolen instead of his daughter. Except the action scenes aren't thrilling enough to compete and Neeson's character doesn't have the same sense of urgency and purpose. A man's entire identity and existence is missing, yet I never get the impression the screenplay grasps the full magnitude of that notion. Just about the only category this does come out on top in is cinematography as this film does have a cooler, slicker look to it than Taken did, only making you wish the story deserved it. And while the twist works, it's not the kind that will have you scurrying back for another viewing in hopes of picking up something you may have missed, nor will it shed new light on the story, which is surprisingly basic considering how strong the premise was. Unsure of what it is and residing in this gray area between goofy action movie and semi-intelligent thriller, Unknown isn't exactly successful as either, even if it's plot would have made a perfect addition to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" book series.