FILM REVIEW: Unknown (2011)

Unknown (USA/ Germany, 2011)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Bruno Ganz

It's not uncommon for actors to have a second, very different career after their initial period of stardom has been and gone. Malcolm McDowell went from the symbol of anarchic youth in If.... and A Clockwork Orange to the man who killed Captain Kirk in Star Trek: Generations. Leslie Nielsen began as a middling melodrama actor and ended up as a comedy icon through the Naked Gun series. And Richard Attenborough started out as Pinkie Brown and ended up as Chris Cringle.

Unknown begins where Taken left off in confirming Liam Neeson's new-found status as the king of the upmarket B-movie. With an interesting central conceit and a flashy visual style, it has the potential to be a rip-roaring, nuts-and-bolts action thriller. But despite Neeson's solid central performance and a couple of decent scenes, the film is undone by its derivative nature and ends up being nothing more than a bit dull.At the centre of Unknown there is a reasonably intriguing idea which has been a staple of thrillers and science fiction for many years. Feeling like the whole world is conspiring against you, and that you are the only sane person left alive, can be found in everything from Philip K. Dick to Eugene Ionesco. It's an appealing idea in cinema because it allows an audience to connect with the central protagonist early on, and creates an air of intrigue which pulls us into the central story.In particular, Unknown owes a big debt to two entries in this loose conspiracy mould. The first is The Lady Vanishes, one of Alfred Hitchcock's last films made in England. In it a young woman boards a train with an elderly lady and goes to sleep, only to find that said lady has disappeared and none of the other passengers remember anyone of her description being on the train.The other close comparison is Frantic, one of Roman Polanski's lighter and frothier efforts in which Harrison Ford's wife disappears in the centre of Paris and the authorities are unwilling to help him find her. In both cases the stories revolve around ordinary people discovering hidden dealings with spies which place them into some kind of mortal danger. And in the case of Frantic, there are direct crossovers in the plot points involving mysterious women and misplaced briefcases.Like both of these films, Unknown hinges on whether or not the central performance is commanding and entertaining enough to keep us interested. And on this level at least, it works. Liam Neeson may be no Harrison Ford, but he has sufficient screen presence to hold an audience's gaze and the emotional range to convey the turmoil of the central character. Much of our attention in the early section of the film is focussed on him adjusting to his status as a man in limbo; not only are his circumstances believable, but his reactions are as well.These early sections find Dr. Martin Harris wondering whether it is possible that every aspect of his life as he perceives it may not actually exist. Because the character does not remember much that happened before the accident, we are left uncertain as to when the illusion of his life would have been created (if indeed it has been created). It is fruitless to speculate as to what happens before his plane lands, since all we have are his conflicted memories and the events which play out before us.As the film rolls on it has to make a number of decisions about which version of reality is true and the reasoning behind it. And it is here that Unknown begins to come apart as its plot and execution become increasingly derivative. In a scene in a multi-story car park, the script dithers over the exact nature of a big twist, borrowing heavily from The Manchurian Candidate and especially the Bourne series. The 'revelation' of Martin Harris' identity is so akin to that in The Bourne Ultimatum that the scripts virtually match up: you almost expect Frank Langella to lean in like Albert Finney and say: "Will you commit to this programme?".Then there are the plot holes to consider. At the beginning of the film we are led to believe that Martin Harris is an ordinary guy in a good marriage - who, as it turns out, also has knowledge of martial arts, explosives and semi-automatic weapons. The question is always how much the character really remembers, and even early on there are questions as to whether someone so seemingly normal could fight or use weapons that well. But after the car park scene all hell breaks loose, with the clunky twist serving as the excuse to turn his character into an all-out invincible action hero.There are other plot holes too. In at least two scenes Liam Neeson gives someone all the money he has in exchange for their help - and yet he always has enough left to make a phone call or to offer to somebody else. The police are conspicuously absent as he leaves an increasing trail of destruction behind him, with long lulls in the film in-between the various attacks by assassins or hired goons. Everything about the Bourne series which solved these problems are lacking in Unknown, and the more often they occur the less plausible it becomes.

The central problem with Unknown is that in the end, it is a little too ordinary. In every aspect of its execution, it is just about passable or almost good enough, but it lacks the sparkle or slight panache to make it memorable. Even in its most frenetic moments, with Neeson punching or killing everyone in sight or several floors of a hotel being blown up, you sit there just a bit bored and increasingly less bothered about what happened beforehand.Like a lot of thrillers, the film ends up relying on a Basil Exposition character to wander in from time to time and nudge the plot along. In this case we have Bruno Ganz, who fills the Michael Redgrave role from The Lady Vanishes, as the man of ill-repute who trusts our hero as much out of curiosity as personal gain. Ganz does the best he can and his scenes are among the most likeable in the film. But after Frank Langella arrives the two are in competition for the role; when they meet it is as much a fight to explain what will happen next as it is about serving their characters.Unknown might have had more chance of being memorable had the action sequences been well-executed. But sadly this is not to be, with even the biggest set-pieces falling short. The film is shot by Flavio Labiano, who also shot the compelling thriller Timecrimes, but the glossy visuals are rendered useless by the bad use of shaky-cam and the hackery of Jaume Collet-Serra. The same stunts involving cars spinning and people being hit by crowbars are repeated almost literally ad nauseum.In terms of the performances around Neeson and Ganz, they are a complete mixed bag. Diane Kruger, fresh from Inglourious Basterds, does a pretty good job as Gina; her character feels savvy and quite rounded, and we enjoy her relationship with Harris as the film develops. But Sebastian Koch, who was great in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, gets precious little to work with, and neither does 'the other Martin Harris' played by Aidan Quinn. As for January Jones, her role consists of little more than turning around mysteriously, glancing into middle distance or demonstrating that she looks good in a backless dress.
Unknown is a disappointingly dull and derivative thriller made memorable only by the performance of Liam Neeson. It has neither the light-hearted, playful thrills of Frantic nor the proficient construction of The Lady Vanishes. It scores over Taken in its depiction of foreigners as something other than blatant stereotypes, and there are individual moments which may raise an eyebrow or a giggle. But otherwise there's very little in Unknown which is surprising, enticing or worth remembering.

Verdict: Initially promising but ultimately pedestrian


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