Thursday, February 17, 2011

Film review: Too late, 'Unknown' leaves thriller re-treads in search for meaning

Liam Neeson and January Jones in Unknown.


By John Thomason

As far as studio actioners go,‭ ‬Unknown has its share of well-crafted set-pieces and steely suspense,‭ ‬but well-versed viewers of modern thrillers won’t help but feel an almost immediate sense of‭ ‬déjà vu.‭

The most obvious reference point is‭ ‬Taken,‭ ‬whose star,‭ ‬Liam Neeson,‭ ‬Unknown shares,‭ ‬and whose color palette of dark blues and antiseptic off-whites are mimicked here by director Jaume Collet-Serra‭ (‬Orphan‭)‬.‭ ‬Even the narratives are similar‭; ‬instead of a bad-ass in search of his daughter,‭ ‬Neeson’s Dr.‭ ‬Martin Harris is a bad-ass in search of his identity.

Arriving in Berlin for a biotech conference,‭ ‬with his lovely wife‭ (‬January Jones‭) ‬in tow,‭ ‬Harris conspicuously leaves his briefcase,‭ ‬full of important scientific documents,‭ ‬on an airport baggage cart.‭ ‬He hops in a taxi and speeds back to get it,‭ ‬only to find the cab plummeting off a bridge after a series of traffic‭ “‬accidents‭” ‬propel it off the road.‭

Harris wakes up in a hospital four days later,‭ ‬only to find that another man‭ (‬Aidan Quinn‭) ‬has assumed his identity,‭ ‬his life and his wife,‭ ‬who seems all too happy playing along.‭ ‬He is the invisible man,‭ ‬the wrong man and the unknown man,‭ ‬alone in a foreign country without identification.‭ ‬Danger darkens every corner,‭ ‬and Martin spends as much time beating off stalking baddies with uncharacteristic skill as he does decoding the mystery of his identity theft.

The more‭ ‬Unknown plunges into a netherworld of spies,‭ ‬espionage and assassination plots,‭ ‬the more it wears its myriad influences on its overlong sleeves.‭ ‬Echoes of countless mistaken-identity and wrong-man thrillers from‭ ‬North by Northwest to‭ ‬A History of Violence to‭ ‬The Ghost Writer to‭ ‬Salt inform,‭ ‬if not completely subsume,‭ ‬Unknown’s serpentine plot.‭ ‬At one point,‭ ‬you half-expect a helpless Harris to be strapped to a dentist’s chair,‭ ‬waiting for Laurence Olivier to ask him if it’s safe.

Unknown has some tricks up its sleeve,‭ ‬but they’re tricks we’ve seen performed before,‭ ‬by better directors.‭ ‬The film’s familiar mechanics unconsciously tell us that Harris‭’ ‬problem is part of a more elaborate,‭ ‬conspiratorial plot,‭ ‬so when said plot is revealed,‭ ‬the sense of surprise is nil.‭ ‬Inconceivable paranoia is the new expectation.

And‭ ‬Unknown takes a long,‭ ‬long time to complete its predictably labyrinthine narrative,‭ ‬stuffing itself with an obligatory love story between Harris and his taxi driver‭ (‬Diane Kruger‭)‬,‭ ‬a Bosnian refugee working illegally in Germany.‭ ‬The film’s‭ ‬113‭ ‬minutes begin to feel like a never-ending epic,‭ ‬what with all the false climaxes written into the film’s supposedly thrill-a-minute final act.‭ ‬And,‭ ‬as is often the case with films of this type,‭ ‬the dot-connected conclusion is never as exciting as the existential premise.

But the movie’s biggest disappointment is that it could have been a politically aware,‭ ‬big-business-attacking thriller along the lines of‭ ‬Michael Clayton,‭ ‬already one of the film’s many points of reference.‭ ‬Some of the drama of‭ ‬Unknown involves an Arabian prince targeted by extremists for his‭ “‬progressive‭” ‬energy policies and a scientist who is developing a groundbreaking strain of corn that will render avaricious agribusinesses obsolete.

To say that such information is delivered in passing is an overstatement.‭ ‬It’s barely there at all,‭ ‬and it should have formed the movie’s intellectual backbone.‭ ‬Instead,‭ ‬the film’s creative team has crafted a benignly apolitical thriller that decides,‭ ‬in its final few minutes,‭ ‬to be About Something.

UNKNOWN.‭ ‬Director:‭ ‬Jaume Collet-Serra‭; ‬Cast:‭ ‬Liam Neeson,‭ ‬Diane Kruger,‭ ‬January Jones,‭ ‬Aidan Quinn,‭ ‬Bruno Ganz,‭ ‬Frank Langella‭; ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Warner Bros.‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬PG-13‭; ‬Opens:‭ ‬Friday,‭ ‬most area theaters

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