'Unknown' Is Not 'Taken', and That's Not a Good Thing

Liam Neeson's Dr. Martin Harris wanders the Berlin streets, catching odd glances from suspicious men, and occasionally breaks out into a jog to elude a strange-looking person.


Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella
Length: 113 minutes
Studio: Dark Castle Entertainment, Panda Productions Inc., Studio Babelsberg, Studio Canal
Year: 2011
Distributor: Warner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content
Release date: 2011-06-21

There’s really only one reason anyone would want to see Unknown, a slow developing thriller with only a few actual thrills: Liam Neeson. Some may go because they’ve always enjoyed the Irish Oscar nominee’s talent, but I feel fairly secure in saying most want to see the newly-anointed action star kick more ass than he did in Taken, Neeson’s career-altering, heart-pumping 2008 action flick.

For those who subscribe to the latter camp, let me quickly burst your bubble. There is very little action in Unknown, and it’s nothing like Taken.

Those of you still reading may only be doing so because you want to desperately believe it is Taken 2 with a different title. “It’s set somewhere in Europe!” you cry. “The preview showed him punching a dude!” “It has Liam Neeson for Pete’s sake!” All of this is true. What they don’t tell you in the trailer (quite cleverly, I might add – the “this is just like Taken” marketing campaign earned the film more than $130 million worldwide) is how long it takes for the film to develop its story and how polite and fairly calm Neeson remains until about 45 minutes into the movie.

As Dr. Martin Harris, a name you’ll hear enough to make a drinking game out of, Neeson takes it fairly easy. He’s in Berlin with his breathtakingly beautiful wife (played by otherwise boring as hell January Jones) to give a lecture on biotechnology. Everything is running smoothly until Harris realizes he left his briefcase and enclosed passport at the airport. Rushing to retrieve it in a taxi driven by another beautiful blonde (played by the far more interesting Diane Kruger), his car flies off a bridge, crashing into the river below.

After being pulled out by his strangely devout cab driver, Harris is diagnosed with severe head trauma – the cinematically convenient kind that can alter memories enough to make anything possible. Low and behold when he returns to the hotel where his wife is staying, she doesn’t recognize him and there is another Martin Harris in his place. Confused and angry, Neeson’s Harris starts searching for answers by politely knocking on doors, interviewing nurses, and occasionally returning to the hotel to check on his wife.

This is not how Bryan Mills would have handled it. After screaming “Where’s my daughter, er, I mean wife?” Mills would have shot the imposter Harris, thrown his wife over his shoulder and fled the country, probably killing another 20 – 30 hostiles en route. Though it’s OK that Martin Harris is nothing like Bryan Mills, the movie’s pacing fails to elevate its hero as it did in Taken. Mills’ astounding will and determination was on display every minute of Pierre Morel’s action extravaganza. Harris is stuck wandering the streets catching odd glances from suspicious men, occasionally breaking out into a jog to elude a strange-looking person. The immediacy is lacking not compared to Taken, but in general.

All of this spare time allows the audience’s mind to wander to the film’s main question. Who is Martin Harris? Is he a man whose wife has been tricked and stolen from him? Is he actually disillusioned and slightly nuts? Is he a victim of some maniacal game played out in real life a la David Fincher’s The Game (a much more satisfying mystery movie)? There are endless possibilities thanks to the vagueness of the injury sustained by Mills, and because of that ambiguity we expect a shocking yet satisfying twist ending.

Without getting too spoiler heavy, the setup doesn’t pay off. There are the usual plot holes (“Why wouldn’t so-and-so have just done that” or “Why didn’t they just kill what’s his name”), but the ending even fails if you manage to shut off your brain and ride through the story. For those of us who have watched a certain well-reviewed, recent popular action franchise, Unknown comes off as its annoying younger brother. It wants to be just like its 'bigger brother', but goes about it in all the wrong ways.

All that being said, Unknown shouldn’t hurt Neeson’s new brand. He handles the few action scenes convincingly and we know he would never walk through the slow stuff, even if all he’s asked to do is walk. There’s certainly another Taken-esque script out there waiting for him. It just wasn’t Unknown.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack includes two brief featurettes, both with titles more interesting than their content. The four-minute Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero talks about the physicality Neeson brings to the role. The main stars, including Neeson, all contribute interviews and the brief clips of behind-the-scenes footage are nice, but it’s pretty bland marketing material overall. The same goes for Unknown: What is Known. Really.

The series of clips from the movie and actor interviews are cut from the same footage as the other bonus feature, and some of them are literally the same. There’s nothing worth watching here, unless you really enjoy hearing Neeson’s soothing tones discuss a movie clearly below his talent level.

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