Sunday, February 20, 2011

Unknown (2011): A Review


Neeson Ist Ein Berliner...

In spite of films like Taken and now Unknown, the phrase 'action star Liam Neeson' still doesn't quite ring true for me. I have a hard time accepting Oskar Schindler taking down bad guys, but then again, he seems to have developed a yen for showing us his bad-ass side. Unknown does that, and it does it with such pleasure and unapologetic glee one forgets and forgives the sheer oddball nature of the plot.

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for a conference. Martin accidentally leaves his briefcase, which has his passport, at the airport, so he rushes back in a cab, leaving Elizabeth in the hotel lobby. On the way to the airport, a freak accident plunges the taxi into the river. The cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger) rescues him, but immediately disappears from the scene, leaving Martin to the paramedics.

Four days later, Martin emerges from his coma, but his memory is a bit hazy. Soon, he remembers who he is, and goes to the hotel to see about his wife who curiously has never shown up or inquired about her husband (funny how Martin never really bothers to figure out why she hasn't). He sees her across a crowded room, but in a shocking twist, she says she has no idea who this man is. Even more shocking, she calls a man over to her: her husband, Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). With nothing to prove who he is, he is forced out of the hotel to his confusion and anger.

In due course, he tracks down Gina and a helpful nurse gives him the address of Herr Jurgens (Bruno Ganz), a former agent in the East German Secret Police now working as a private investigator. Jurgens makes his inquiries while Martin A. and Gina, whom we discover is an illegal alien from Bosnia, delve into the mystery of who he is and who Martin B. is. In the course of this labyrinth plot we make even more shocking discoveries, involving secret identities, an assassination squad, biotechnology, and the ever-creepy Frank Langella.

Now, I've heard complaints that the plot of Unknown (screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell based on the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert--a title that would have been so much fun to play with) is outrageous and nonsensical. I would counter, outrageous and nonsensical as opposed to what: The Big Sleep? Touch of Evil?

In fairness to Unknown, while the story is preposterous and yes, rather outlandish, it is so unapologetic about it and does it with such sincerity and enthusiasm that you can overlook that it all is rather implausible. In short, Unknown starts out as an amnesia story, shifts into a stolen identity story, and then goes into full kick-ass killer story. Really out there? Absolutely. Fun to watch? Absolutely.

One can see from the performances that almost everyone was having fun reveling in the crazyness of the project. In what is basically a cameo, Langella brings a creepy menace even when we're suppose to think he's the good guy (rarely is he ever a good guy, so we should know better). Ganz, an actor who should be more known to American audiences, is wonderful as Jurgens, making a former agent of the Stasi almost grandfatherly, and the fact that he appears to be either dying or in seriously ill health makes him almost more endearing. Quinn, another actor who should get more roles and who to my mind is terribly underused, is also fun to watch playing someone who may be good but can't be since he's impersonating our hero...and nothing good can ever come from impersonating our hero.

As for the leads, Neeson owns every scene he is in: being full-fledged action star when needed, being a confused and almost frightened man when needed. Neeson never goes over the top but plays Martin A. with total commitment. For that, one should give him a great deal of credit: that he can play this shall we say, offbeat material totally straight.

Kruger, with whom I've had issues with (Troy), and who is actually German, does at times make her Gina a bit hysterical and oddly quite the action lead at the same time, but she does make good use of her time, almost making us believe she is an actual refugee--albeit a beautiful one.

The only one who doesn't seem to get it is Jones. Her Elizabeth is blank throughout Unknown, as if she's just waiting for the new Mad Men scripts to arrive. Granted, I've never seen that show, but I can't imagine whatever character she plays is that emotionless and oddly disengaged from almost anything involving her character. Side note: if we are to believe the story as given to us, wouldn't it have been easier to get Martin A. out of the way while he was in a coma rather than just let him wander around like a loose cannon? Just a thought.

Director Jaume Collet-Sera, whose body of work such as the remake of House of Wax with Paris Hilton and Orphan doesn't exactly bode well for Unknown. However, since I go into these films unprejudiced by him few films I will grant that the action scenes are well-made, fast, and exciting. I even give him credit for putting in those touches, like seeing Jurgens coughing at various times to signal that he is an old man facing his mortality.

My only complaint about the actual filming was that a lot of the action takes place at night or under heavy cloud cover, which gives Unknown a rather dark look that at times makes things just a touch hard to see.

I can't lie: Unknown isn't a great film, but it is a very entertaining one. I like to judge the success or failure of a film based on what it sets out to accomplish, and Unknown set out to do nothing more than provide action within the confines of a rather outlandish plot. The performances were played straight when even one of them going for camp would have killed the mood (although I did end up laughing, albeit in a fun as opposed to mocking way, when Frank Langella got his just desserts).

If you go with the premise of the film without thinking too much about it you'll find that Unknown is a fun, fast, action-oriented film that is entertaining and unapologetic about it. I think in the end that it should be more known. It did make me want to visit Berlin, so that's a plus, too.

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