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Unknown (2011)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

UNKNOWN (2011)

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Frank Langella, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz

Written By: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cromwell, Didier Van Cauwelaert (novel) Directed By: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Short Version

Unknown plays at intrigue and keeps the audience guessing... usually.

Think “Hitchcock style thriller,” minus the “Hitchcock” and replacing “thrilling” with “interesting.”

These aren’t bad things, really, but this is one of those flicks where a lot of compliments end in “but…”

Liam Neeson fans will be all over this one with no complaints.

Unknown is the sort of flick about which one says “that was good!” and then never sees it again.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

THAT SAMPLE YOU LIKED AT THE GROCERY STORE LAST WEEK.

You know, the one that was really tasty at the time, but now that a few days have gone by… what the hell was it? 


Pairs Well With...

THE HOUSE CHARDONNAY.

It sure was delicious when the sommelier brought it to your table, but it turned out to be rather forgettable by the time you left the restaurant, and something you’re not inclined to order again, even though it wasn’t bad, per se.

“Sentiment: it's always the first thing to go.”


Unknown presents a special kind of paradox.  Designed as a thriller (as opposed to being the action film the trailers were cut to dress it as), Unknown demands that that audience think about what’s going on the entire time… or at least go through the motions of thinking.  However, the more one actually thinks about Unknown, the less lustrous it appears.  It’s a cool ride while you’re on it, but…

I remember when I first saw Unknown at the theatre.  My immediate thought upon leaving was: “that was good!”  But it was the hollow kind of “that was good;” the kind that not only means “I enjoyed the ride” and “I didn’t waste my time and money,” but also “I really can’t imagine wanting to see this again.”  The more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that this was because despite a venire of intrigue and sophistication, Unknown itself is hollow.

A month later, I asked someone else if she’d seen Unknown.  She said that she hadn’t, and asked what it was about.  After about a minute, she realized that she actually had seen the movie three weeks before, and had liked it at the time.  (And no, this is not a flighty person, nor, as it turns out, is her lack of recollection of this film unique.  It seems to be a common thread for many discussing Unknown.)  That, my friends, is how memorable this movie is.  It’s not bad; in fact, while you’re watching it, it seems quite good, but…

Out of curiosity (and for the sake of this page), I decided to try it again.  The passage of a year hasn’t changed my mind; if anything, Unknown was much better the first time around.

As our story begins, we’re pretty sure that Liam Neeson (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) is playing Dr. Martin Harris, who is just landing in Berlin to attend a biotech conference with his lovely wife, Elizabeth (January Jones, X-Men: First Class).  But then there’s this traffic accident that knocks him senseless, and when he wakes up some time later in a Berlin hospital, the guy played by Liam Neeson is the only person who still thinks that he’s Dr. Martin Harris.  Everyone else – including Elizabeth – now seems to believe that the guy played by Aidan Quinn (Jonah Hex) is the real Dr. Martin Harris.  So who, then, is the guy played by Liam Neeson, really?  That’s for him to find out, with the help of an illegal immigrant taxi driver (Diane Kruger, National Treasure) and a former East German Intelligence officer (Bruno Ganz, Downfall).  If he can avoid being killed in the process, of course…

For cynics (or fanboys and fangirls, for that matter), Unknown exists for one reason and one reason only: as a vehicle for Liam Neeson to play an angry, intense, not-quite-everyman, just like he did in the wildly successful surprise hit Taken three years before.  Indeed, this film’s marketing department went to great lengths to make Unknown look as much like Taken as possible, even though really, the resemblance is passing.  Upon closer inspection, Unknown contains far more similarities to Roman Polanski’s Frantic or to any number of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers than it does to the flick it’s trying to piggyback on the success of.  But then again, Frantic and all of those various Alfred Hitchcock thrillers were good, so that’s got to be a pleasant surprise for everyone, including the cynics, right?

Well…

Okay; good news first.  If you’re part of the legion that the producers were betting on who are indeed mainly interested in Unknown because Liam Neeson’s the headliner, then by all means, pick it up and have a look.  You’ll have no complaints.  He is still very much the intense, awesome performer you’ve come to expect.  When the scene calls for drama, Neeson brings the drama.  When his character gets pissed, Neeson makes you believe it and want to stay the hell out of his way while you watch the carnage from a safe distance.  As always, the man’s on his “A” game, and if a dose of Liam Neeson goodness is what you’re after, then Unknown will fill your prescription nicely.

As for the rest of the movie…

Try to picture an old school “put the puzzle together by finding the missing pieces” thriller in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock.  That’s what Unknown wants to be, with Liam Neeson as Cary Grant, or possibly as Jimmy Stewart, only with a little Charles Bronson/Ah-nold action thrown in when things get rough.  And as the random entries from The Guinness Book of Amazing Coincidences and Happenstance Moments begin to appear, it works.  Indeed, it will continue to work as long as the movie keeps running.  The ride will be interesting.  That’s because director Jaume Collet-Serra understands pacing, and keeps Unknown in a state of perpetual (though by no means overwhelming) motion.  As long as the story is moving, you’re in the moment, and much more likely to accept what’s going on and assume that when two pieces are put together, they actually fit.  But…

In a Hitchcock movie, those pieces really would fit, and what’s more, the end credits would roll over a completed puzzle and a picture that made sense.  However, once the story of Unknown stops moving, it also quickly breaks down.  What looked smart just a moment before looks no less contrived than the average slasher when one has time to think (which the concept of this movie asks the audience to do), and along with the onslaught of “That Was Awfully Convenient” realizations come the “Lots of Loose Ends” and “Wait, That Doesn’t Make Sense” dilemmas.  Yes, the pieces seemed to fit as they were being presented, but afterward, one can’t help but think that they either didn’t fit after all, or that the puzzle was made of nothing but squares that would have rested together edge-to-edge no matter how you set them down.  Give Unknown a second thought or a second look, and “that was good” morphs into “wait a minute.”  The difference between “timeless great” and “one and done”?  Hitchcock would have answered everything, and everything would have made sense, especially after repeated viewings, whereas Unknown… well…

It doesn’t help that the characters – including our hero – are all as hollow as the lies they tell.  For a movie that’s supposed to be all about the concept of identity and ownership of one’s own life, Unknown is full of paper thin people.  There’s no real depth here; even the developed characters are either one-dimensional or their personalities are false fronts.  At the end of the day, anyone in this movie could still be anyone.  The marketing slogan for this flick was “Take Back Your Life.”  Take back your life?  More like “pick up another sheet of paper.”  Indeed, it is this very aspect of the film that proves its success could only have come on the strength of an actor like Liam Neeson; replace him with someone who doesn’t automatically deliver life and presence to anything he touches (which is to say, replace him with an average actor), and the lead character is reduced to being a hollow nothing.

Which brings us to the classification of “thriller,” since one really can’t justify calling Unknown an action movie.  The thing is, the style is right, but there’s never an actual adrenaline rush to be had.  Yes, Unknown is interesting, but thrilling?  Not really.  I think that’s the first “hey, wait a minute” that slipped through as I was leaving the theatre a year ago, when I realized that the ride had been cool, but…

On the plus side, though, most of the sins mentioned above don’t become apparent during the course of a first viewing; they only start creeping in on the way home, and set themselves should you ever decide to watch Unknown again.  There are two things, though, that Unknown can’t hide from even the most innocent of audiences.

The first is January Jones, riding the success of TV’s “Mad Men” as far as she can go with it.  However, though she certainly has the Central Casting Blonde Model looks to go along with her intriguing name, she’s just not that great of an actress.  I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the difference in age between Jones and Neeson in terms of their believability as a couple, but for me, that’s not where the problem lies.  (Indeed, look around your real life; lots of couples have what others might call a significant age difference.)  Rather, the problem lies in the difference of talent; Neeson has it in spades, whereas Jones, frankly, does not.  She doesn’t act so much as project an air of entitlement at the camera, and the results are very off-putting.  Looks can only carry one so far.

The second thing comes in the form of an actor who is a near polar opposite to Jones in terms of talent: Frank Langella (The Ninth Gate).  How can a man of Langella’s obvious credentials and skills be a problem, you ask?  Simple.  You absolutely know who he has to be the moment you first see his name in the credits, and again as soon as you hear him talk (even if you don’t know anything else about Frank Langella, at that point; that’s the kind of resonance he brings).  By casting one of the best men for the job, the filmmakers have ruined their own twist in the story.  Oops.

Ah, well; the audience will figure out how thin the story was anyway soon enough…

Bottom line, Unknown is the sort of film that is built to withstand exactly one viewing, and if you’re a Liam Neeson fan, I sincerely encourage you to go for it, because you’ll enjoy what you show up to see.  It really is a good movie… while it’s playing.  Once the credits roll, however, try not to think about anything other than Neeson’s performance, because after that, Unknown falls apart as surely as the paper thin lies the characters tell, and really doesn’t stand up to a second viewing.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2012


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