EXPECTATIONS: For six months or so, trailers and TV ads for Unknown have been selling us the "Bourne meets Taken" angle pretty hard. Neeson's line about how "I didn't forget everything" seems particularly ripped from the Bourne playbook. This probably won't be nearly as fun as either of the films previously mentioned, but then again anything involving Liam Neeson fighting people and Diane Kruger doing anything is automatically my kind of thing.
*Spoilers may follow. Don't say I never warned you.*
REALITY: Ladies and gentlemen, we have been duped. Unknown is not the film you think it is. It's not the film they're trying to sell us. It isn't even the film all the critics are saying it is. It is, in fact, an impostor. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into with this film, but it quickly became apparent that Unknown is simply aping things done better in other movies. One in particular.
The film opens with Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arriving in Berlin for a bio-engineering conference. Harris accidentally leaves a briefcase at the airport, and on his way back to retrieve it his taxi swerves off the road and into a nearby river. Four days later, he wakes up in a hospital remembering only fragments of what happened. When he returns to his hotel room, he finds that not only does his wife not recognize him, but also there is another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris. Thrown out onto the streets of Berlin, Harris begins to put together the pieces of what happened to him. With the help of the taxi driver who saved his life, a Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger), he soon uncovers an assassination conspiracy as well as some nasty truths about his own past.
Regardless of the film's quality, this image is pretty damn cool.
Now, first things first: Does this sound at all like Taken to you? No? Good, because it shouldn't. People are only making that comparison because of Liam Neeson's involvement, and because the two films share vaguely the same tone. But "dark, mysterious and violent" isn't something exclusive to Taken. If you held a shard of a broken mirror to my throat and forced me to name the film Unknown reminded me of most, I'd have to choke out "The Bourne Identity." And that's exactly what this movie is.
Denizens of the Internet love to use the word 'literally' incorrectly, but today I feel like I can say it and actually mean it. Unknown is literally The Bourne Identity. Beat for beat, in fact. Knowing that movie's plot will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about this one. And the thing is, you don't really even realize it until the big twist comes in the third act. That is the twist. This is another one of those movies where trying to out-think the plot will actually make the movie less enjoyable. As the mystery begins to unravel, you start conjuring up all sorts of possible scenarios for what's actually going on. For example, I thought the big mystery was going to be some German conspiracy to kill illegal immigrants. That would've made for an interesting, unexpected turn of events, especially given where the movie takes place. But no, that kind of thinking only leads to disappointment.
In light of that, though, Unknown is a perfectly serviceable movie until it starts giving away its secrets. While Liam Neeson sometimes overacts the part to the point of being ridiculous, it's still pretty fun watching him take out a bunch of henchmen. Elsewhere, January Jones gets to play the typical femme fatale role (but not particularly well), while Diane Kruger is stuck doing all the sidekick grunt work and only gets a few seconds of interesting character development. Kruger is even native to Germany; why, then, did they bother making her character Bosnian? Just for shits and giggles? (Oh, right, because The Bourne Identity did it.)
Let's pause on this for a moment. We have two major female roles: One is the typical role that we see women play in spy movies all the time. It's stock, it's formula, but hey, it's expected in this kind of movie. Jones plays this character almost completely without nuance. At the risk of sounding sexist, if I had to describe her character, I would say she played "The Woman." Then there's Kruger's character Gina. She's something of an enigma; We don't get to know too much about her, but she turns out to be pretty useful when Harris needs her. There's really nothing about this character that stands out as overtly feminine, and she seems like a more modern version of what we expect out of women in action movies. Not once do the two characters interact, nor do they really even seem aware of the other. Granted, the film is all about Liam Neeson's character, but the way the film makes use of these two makes me wonder if there was some ulterior motive that got swept under the rug by a producer begging for more action scenes. Oh well, maybe next time.
Neeson gets really angry about grafitti.Back to the acting for a moment: If anyone deserves the film's MVP award, it's Bruno Ganz, who plays an ex-Cold War detective hired by Harris to investigate things behind the scenes. He appears in only a handful of scenes, but there's an odd sense of fun watching someone who used to do this kind of thing the old-fashioned way suddenly stuck hunting for facts behind a computer. He shares a fantastic scene with Frank Langella, where we see two old warhorses do some verbal sparring about the Cold War before getting to the matter of plot. This confrontation manages to run the gamut from fun to poignant to downright eerie in a matter of seconds. Sometimes good acting really can overcome a terrible script.
Additionally, I wish I could say, "At least we get to see some of the historic landmarks around Berlin." There are brief glimpses of the Berlin skyline and a couple shots of the Brandenburg Gate, but the film spends most of its time in dank alleys, slums, or nondescript hotel rooms. There's really no need for Unknown to have been set in Berlin. It could just as easily have been Paris or London or Toronto, and in the grand scheme of the plot, the setting really doesn't even matter.
All the elements are here for Unknown to be a decent suspense thriller: Liam Neeson screaming at people and punching them in the throat, a dark European setting, a case of
mistaken stolen identity, and some beautiful women to provide vague assistance. If the screenwriters had taken some time to come up with a better twist, it might have complemented what was already a pretty taut mystery. Instead, turning it into The Neeson Identity winds up torpedoing the entire film and cheapening something potentially interesting.
Yes, Hollywood, I remember everything. Even nine-year-old action movies.
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MINORITY REPORT: Liam Neeson is a very interesting action star now -- leather jackets and brown hair dye can do a lot to make a man look dynamic and exciting -- but even with the skinny arms and old-man paunch that it all hides, he could still kick your arse back to 2002, where you could watch The Bourne Identity in cinemas again and not bother with this. So, I guess... do that instead? Good luck. - Ian "ProfessorClumsy" Maddison
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