[18 February 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Perhaps we can blame George Lucas (why not - he’s culpable for most of our cultural evils, right?). Seems like, ever since he starred as Qui-Gon Jinn in the geek Jedi Masters amazingly awful Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Liam Neeson has gone from respected actor to Nicolas Cage paycheck casher. Sure, interspersed among the crash commercial titles are work in higher brow fare (Kinsey, Kingdom of Heaven, Chloe), but for the most part, he’s been “taken” for everything from an action hero (The A-Team) to the voice of a lion messiah (The Chronicles of Narnia). The trips to the bank continue with the release of Unknown. One of those “who am I” thrillers that depend a lot more on contrivance than actual suspense, it marks yet another downturn in what was once a seemingly promising, serious acting career.
Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a bio-tech expert arriving in Berlin to be part of a major scientific summit. Tagging along is his hot trophy wife Elizabeth (January Jones). Once in town, our hero misplaces his briefcase. A trip back to the airport in a taxi ends up in near tragedy. The vehicle is involved in a terrible crash and Harris is rescued by bohemian cabbie Gina (Diane Kruger). After four days in a coma, our lead learns that he has lost part of his memory. Returning to his hotel, he is shocked when his wife doesn’t recognize him, and instead introduces another man as Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). Lost, he seeks Gina’s help, as well as that of a former East German secret policeman (Bruno Ganz) turned private eye. Together, they will unravel the mystery of who Dr. Martin Harris really is, and why the truth is being covered up.
Since it’s based on a book, you’d think that Unknown would have some slight literary merit. Sadly, this is pure pulp fiction of the most meandering, mediocre kind. Helmed at a snail’s pace by House of Wax/Orphan director Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s a proposed clockwork nail-biter where the mainspring has unraveled and come loose. At nearly two hours, it’s padded by more than 20 minutes, and that’s a shame. Had he applied a more rapid fire approach to his project, had he amplified the action and not the angst, Collet-Serra could have really sold this otherwise stock idea. Though he’s no Jason Statham, Neeson has a gravitas that translates well in these kind of settings. Sadly, what Unknown wants to focus on is the “why?”: why is Dr. Martin Harris in Berlin?; why is he being set-up?; why is there someone else claiming to be him?; etc., etc., etc.
When the fights and car chases finally do arrive, they shock you with their sudden movie mood swings. We’ve spent so much time watching our confused hero wander aimlessly through the cold winter streets of Germany that when he suddenly breaks out the badass skills, our suspicion starts to grow. By the time he’s careening a car down some very crowded streets, the mandatory ‘twist’ becomes readily apparent. Yes, this is one of those movies where the truth arrives in a third act thud that is supposed to surprise us with its complexities. But the writing has been all over the routine plot point since a proposed personal friend couldn’t be contacted. The character, essayed eventually by Frank Langella, is that sticky red herring, that reason nothing feels right for most of the movie’s middle. In today’s high tech world, the inability to talk to Rodney Cole creates the kind of doubt that makes everything else unravel.
Still, Neeson more or less salvages the material, making up for a lack of drive with his own personal determination. While Collet-Serra seems stuck in the hackneyed hand-held maelstrom approach to the good vs. evil set-pieces, the brooding machismo of his lead gets the point across. Similarly, Kruger’s Eastern Bloc babe makes for an intriguing (if eventually incomplete) companion. Her life story would be far more interesting than the weepy soul search that goes on. For their part, Jones and Quinn are nothing more than place holders, players in a narrative that doesn’t care about their eventual comeuppance. In fact, had Neeson simply teamed up with Ganz’s Nazi/Commie PI to prove who he is, the entire film would be a lot better. The German acting icon is far superior to the majority the film that surrounds him.
Of course, Unknown is not really aiming for the creative but the merely commercial. It’s tagging itself to Taken and any other recent Neeson ‘hit’. It hopes that audiences not yet born when the actor aided Steven Spielberg in his bid for Oscar glory will see the latest example of a middle aged man as butt kicker and drops the necessary dollars to make the movie a success. They won’t care that certain story elements don’t add up, or that characters play both sides of the motivational coin hoping to reel you in before the already rote denouement. A lot of Unknown was clearly left on the pages of its source. The whole Arab prince element is underserved, as is the reason everyone is playing pretend assassin. Similarly, when we finally learn the truth, the entity (or entities) involved get less explanation than a direct to DVD b-movie.
Again, this is all about Neeson and his never-ending quest to collect as many money drafts as possible before his A-list aura runs out. While entertaining in parts, Unknown struggles to sustain its amusement. Because of the story, there is an inherent interest level that the movie constantly countermands. We want to find out who Dr. Martin Harris really is (if anyone), to answer all the ‘whys’ endlessly worked into the narrative. But since Collet-Serra seems more enamored with the Berlin backdrop than actual key ingredients, his cinematic stew grows thin. As February releases go, Unknown is slightly above average. It’s failings, however, will be hard to overcome - even for someone like Neeson.