Liam Neeson Gives Us “Schindler’s Fist” in UNKNOWN
Movie review by John Harvey
With Harrison Ford mellowing and taking more roles in dramas and comedies, action/thriller fans who like their heroes with a little gray hair should be relieved to see Liam Neeson‘s career shift toward films like TAKEN (2008) and now UNKNOWN.
And Neeson is perfect for these roles. Though he clocks in at 58 years-old, his physical stature (6’5” and a former boxer), his rugged good looks, and obvious acting chops make him believable in action roles. Unlike, say, Bruce Willis who these days requires that you squint and think of John McClane if you want to believe he can fall down a flight of stairs without breaking a hip.
In UNKNOWN, Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who arrives in Berlin with his age-inappropriate wife, Elizabeth (MAD MEN‘s January Jones), to speak at a major biotech conference. Upon arriving at their hotel, Harris realizes that his briefcase (containing his passport) has been left behind at the airport. So, he jumps in a cab, almost dies in a random car accident, and spends the next four days hospitalized in a coma. When he wakes up, he finds that his wife doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Baffled and distraught, Harris must figure out why this is happening to him, while alone in a foreign country.
Compared to TAKEN, this film is driven more by twists-and-turns and suspense rather than the visceral and linear action. While it’s tempting to compare UNKNOWN to the various Jason Bourne movies starring Matt Damon, this film leans more toward an Alfred Hitchcock aesthetic. It’s doesn’t always get that aesthetic right, but it succeeds more than it fails.
When dealing with this sort of premise, you have to forgive more than a few improbabilities and impossibilities. Generally, you’ll increase your level of forgiveness proportional to how much fun you have watching the film. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has done thrillers before (ORPHAN (2009) and HOUSE OF WAX (2005)), and provides just enough action and suspense to let the average viewer sit back and enjoy the ride. His directing style leans toward crisp and uncomplicated, which results in above-par car chases where you can actually follow what’s happening and brutal, believable fight scenes.
Written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwall (the latter being thriller author John le Carré’s son) and adapted from French author Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel “Out of My Head,” the story and plotting for UNKNOWN is good, but perhaps features a few too many twists, dodges, and red herrings. The biggest trap with movies like this is that the more you paint the protagonist into a corner, the more you expect from the ending. And, more often than not, the more likely you are to be disappointed by that ending. The good news is that while UNKNOWN‘s ending isn’t uber-fantastic, it’s also not that bad. As far as story goes, perhaps the biggest flaw in UNKNOWN is that Dr. Harris takes a little too long to shift into “hero mode” where he’s taking charge rather than allowing himself to be chased around.
From an acting perspective, the biggest flaw in UNKNOWN is January Jones as Harris’ wife. One suspects that she was shooting for an ice queen vibe (à la similar roles in various Hitchcock films), but what she actually provides is a kind of vacuous, high-functioning Stepford wife. Thankfully, all the other performances here are spot-on. Diane Kruger puts in a great performance as Gina, a Bosnian cab driver who becomes intertwined in Harris’ fate. Also, the scene-stealer in UNKNOWN is Bruno Ganz (see author’s note 1), who portrays a former STASI agent turned private investigator whose attention to detail helps to unravel Harris’ mess. And Frank Langella comes in near the film’s end to effortlessly increase the menace factor.
Does UNKNOWN have its flaws? Sure. It’s not air-tight, but still manages to do more right than wrong. This is a fun movie that makes you both pay attention and care about the characters. One hopes that Neeson will put in a few more performances like this before he moves on to other things.
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© Copyright 2011 by John D. Harvey
Directed By: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written By: Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwall
Starring: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella.
Run Time: 113 minutes
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Not familiar with Bruno Ganz? Oddly, you’ve probably seen him act many times if you’ve watched any of the popular “Hitler Finds Out…” meme’s on YouTube, where Ganz portrays Hitler in the German-language film DOWNFALL (2004), but with fans splicing in their own comedic subtitles to Hitler’s meltdown toward the end of the movie. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/downfall-hitler-meme
EDITOR’S NOTE: If Ganz seems familiar, it may also be because you’ve seen him in one of his 99 film roles, including such classics as Win Wenders’ THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977), THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978), Werner Herzog’s version of NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (1979) and Wenders’ art-house hit, WINGS OF DESIRE (1987). ~LLS