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Unknown (2011)

March 13, 2011


written by: Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell

produced by:  Joel Silver, Leonard Goldberg, & Andrew Rona

directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content)

113 min.

U.S. release date: February 18, 2011


Unlike 2008’s “Taken” the French action thriller starring Liam Neeson as a man with “a certain set of skills”, which had me riveted right from the start, this film had the opposite effect. The first twenty minutes had me bored and looking at my watch. Not a good sign. “Unknown” is relentless in the way it dispenses suspense in such a sluggish manner, piling inconceivable concepts and clichés that cry desperation. Each actor, including Neeson, are merely present and accounted for as they go from one confounded point to the convoluted next.

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is an American who arrives in Berlin with his beautiful young wife, Elizabeth (a blank an unimpressive January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. Arriving at their hotel in a cab, he realizes he has left a briefcase on the curb at the airport. Without telling his wife, he gets in another cab and returns back to the airport in an effort to retrieve the briefcase. During that trip, his driver Gina (Diane Kruger) involves the doctor in a sudden car accident, sending their vehicle into a river. Gina manages to get both of them out (possibly proving herself to be on the most well-prepared cabbies cinema has seen!) and leaves the unconscious Martin to attending paramedics.

He wakes up in a hospital four days later on Thanksgiving Day, to discover he isn’t who he thinks he is. Returning to the hotel where the summit is, Martin is rejected by his wife who not only acts as if she doesn’t know him but is always there with another man (blatant baddie Aidan Quinn) who is claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris. Shocked by her response, he seeks help from a colleague, Prof. Rodney Cole (Frank Langella, seemingly reprising his role from “The Box”), but is unable to get a hold of him due to the holiday. Is he going crazy? Who is this imposter and what does he want with his wife and his identity?

Upset and confused, Martin sets out to uncover what he perceives as a conspiracy and hopefully get to the bottom of this identity dilemma. He tries tracking down a Prof. Bressler (Sebastian Koch) whom he was to meet up with that day, only to find him with the new Dr. Harris. With no one else to turn to, Martin backtracks to Gina and enlists whatever help she can offer. Somehow, he also receives help from a former Stasi spy named Jurgen (Bruno Ganz, “Downfall” who supplies the most interesting performance) who agrees to investigate Martin and his involvement with this summit. The result is a story that had me just as upset and confused as Liam Neeson. At least he was getting paid.

The rest of the movie involves confusing and unresolved plot details as well as holes that the screenwriters hope you ignore or forget. I tried to just give up and enjoy the ride, but that just unraveled more questions. Who sent the assassins that hunt down Martin and Gina? Why must we be given such blatant devices (we are slapped over the head with Martin’s briefcase and journal throughout, just in case we’re not following along) in order to move along the story? How can a movie with physical altercations, car chases and frenzied panic, become such a slow and muddled mess? Does January Jones think she’s in “Mannequin 3”? Sigh. It’s a weak and flimsy characterization that we have to blame for such predictable and stereotypical acting (hullo, Aidan Quinn!). Maybe other viewers followed all this or maybe they just didn’t care.

I want to believe that the book this film is based on, Out of My Head by French novelist Didier van Cauwelaert, is more suspenseful and thrilling, or at least involving. I can’t count the amount of times I had to force myself to stay interested in the plot, as well as the characters. Much of my loss of interest had to do with the many questions I had, but also because there wasn’t much to the characters to really invest in. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who last directed 2009’s “Orphan”) has to balance the dense layers of a psychological thriller with the action film conventions of Hollywood, hoping that the marquee value of Neeson’s recent popular “everyman of action” can carry the film.  It’s a task that Collet-Serra can’t handle, delivering tired clichés and allowing actors to emote with pretension. People are going to see this for Neeson and he does what he can, but I wouldn’t say he owns the role to the point where I couldn’t see someone else taking a crack t it, and succeeding.

I wanted to know more about the character of Martin Harris, rather than the predicament we find him in. Once the big reveal of the film’s twist is out in the open, there’s an opportunity to know more about him, especially his backstory. But no, we just keep plodding along from one action sequence to the next. I also found myself never really sold that Martin is a doctor, which is something that is needed in order for us to be sold on his character’s sudden series of events. We also need to feel like Neeson and Jones are a married couple. You know, in love? Well, that doesn’t happen either. There are just too many crucial dramatic elements missing here for us to be legitimately thrilled.

Attempting touches of Hitchcock, Collet-Serra may not be going for an all-out action film with “Unknown” but that’s likely what Neeson fans are anticipating. He’s good at looking desperate and out-of-breath, but he has an untapped reservoir of talent that isn’t being utilized here. The screenwriters would’ve done well to strengthen the environment more, fleshing out Berlin like Polanski did with Paris in “Frantic” a superior Euro-mystery with Harrison Ford from 1988. Elevating the location and environment to that of a supporting character helps immerse the audience and can often heighten the intensity the script may call for.

You won’t necessarily regret your time spent in “Unknown” but you also won’t come away from it all very satisfied. The final third act has it all, with car-explosions, a terrorist bomb, tedious exposition, and silly macho hand to hand combat. I hope no one is really wondering who would win in a fight, Liam Neeson or Aidan Quinn. In the hours and days that pass after spending time with such forgettable absurdity, I found myself only remembering a few choice scenes and resolved to settle with the film’s promising trailer.


RATING: *1/2

8 Comments leave one →
  1. windi noel permalink
    March 13, 2011 6:12 pm

    i would give it more than only 1 1/2 stars, but it definitely was a disappointing movie. There were some scenes that did have me on edge, but I think that might have been the music as much as anything! LOL

    At first, I left thinking the movie was pretty good, even if it wasn’t as good as Taken, but I’m not so sure now. I seem to have forgotten why I liked it. Maybe I just really wanted it to be good.

    I was going to ask where you guys were putting the rating now, since they aren’t right up there after the title, but I saw you rated it at the end of review….

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      March 13, 2011 9:04 pm

      Here’s the thing: if you’ve forgotten why you liked it….well, that should tell ya quite a bit. yeah, slapping the ratings at the end was one of the changes we made this year.

      • windi noel permalink
        March 14, 2011 2:05 pm

        exactly! LOL I think it’s because I like Liam Neeson so well, and really, really wanted to love the movie!

  2. C.S. permalink
    March 13, 2011 10:21 pm

    Like Noel, I would give Unknown more than 1 1/2 stars too, but I pretty much agree with the review otherwise.

    This is what I told some of my friends after I saw it:

    There are way too many coincidences, improbabilities, plot holes, etc. Despite being such a fast-paced film, the “logic” of the story sort of unravels a bit even as you’re watching it. And if you sit down and think about it for a few seconds after the credits roll, it all kinda falls apart.

    I pretty much agree with the sentiment you expressed here: “You won’t necessarily regret your time spent in “Unknown” but you also won’t come away from it all completely satisfied. ” And I also wanted to know more about Martin Harris.

    This movie had potential, and it started off awesomely IMO, but it slowly squandered its potential with plot hole after plot hole and improbability after improbability. Eventually, enough was enough and the movie had pissed away the good faith I was trying to have in it.

    Great review!

  3. Coco permalink
    March 21, 2011 12:54 pm

    So who wins in the hand combat: Liam Neeson or Aidan Quinn? 😉

    I for one was dying to watch this. Always digged Neeson as an actor. He was my Anthony Hopkins replacement.

    Intriguing review. I will have to watch it and see whether I agree or not.


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