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DVD Review: Unknown (2011)

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Liam Neeson is not too old for this shit. In fact, you might say he’s precisely the right age for this shit. Unknown presents Neeson as the new old codger of the action cinema, expanding on his star image from Taken (2008), and continuing his usurpation of Clint Eastwood’s established status as our grandpappy of revenge, sorting out our social dilemmas with good old-fashioned wherewithal. Our residual associations with the Neeson of Taken here become narrative shorthands, facilitating a generic easiness based on our previous understandings of him as a determined, loyal, faithful, and, of course, still quite virile manly type.

Unknown follows dapper scientist Martin Harris (Neeson) as he arrives in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a biotechnology conference. After arriving at his hotel, Harris discovers that an important piece of his luggage is missing and speeds of in a taxi to reclaim the briefcase. On his return route to the airport, his taxi is involved in an accident and tumbles over a bridge into an icy river. Consequently, his memory is shot and he wakes up in a hospital following a four-day comma. Naturally, coincidences mount up, complicating Harris’ mission to regain his identity, most notably a doppelganger who now claims to be Martin Harris as well.

One of the more interesting thematic concerns of the film is its treatment of cell phone technology. Like other recent films such as Buried (2010) and Source Code (2011), Unknown explores the dilemmas of cell phone technology. These films ask similar questions: What can our cell phones do? How do they extend our knowledge of, and perhaps change our ability to function in, the social strata? Finally, are they ultimately a benefit or a hazard? Yet unlike Buried and Source Code, this film rejects the technophilia of the two aforementioned films in favor of a much more pessimistic outlook of its influence on the maintenance of our memories and identities.

Prior to the accident that injures Harris, he spends a significant amount of screen time pouring over his Blackberry, checking/confirming appointments and so on. When he wakes up from his comma, the doctors immediately ask him if he remembers his wife’s cell phone number. “Of course she has a cell phone,” Harris gruffly replies. I imagine we would all respond in a similar manner. And upon leaving the hospital against doctor’s orders, Harris sets about recovering his identity in a curiously dated way, cross-referencing payphones, phonebooks, and libraries. He even relies on the stakeout and other old-timey tactics of fictional detectives. His success, I would argue, seems to confirm that the old ways are still the best, especially when contrasted with the technological savvy of his primary assassin-antagonists.

Formally, the film is a conventional, modernist piece of contemporary Hollywood cinema. Plot is the principal concern of all stylistic deviation; there is nothing excessive about it. Rapid cuts to the washed-out, blurred-focus, Dutch-angled memories of Harris’ past, clearly mark our entrance into his subjectivity and contrast with the glossy, clean, HD present.

Unfortunately, the film often invokes the tropes and set pieces of the action genre without successfully avoiding straight-faced derivation, not even modestly modifying or exploiting them to work with the star image of Neeson or its own technophobic themes. This is particularly evident when contrasted with several genuinely tense, almost Hitchcockian scenes that thrill in a more subtle, but no less visceral, manner.

As for the DVD, all you get is a fluff documentary piece or two. Big deal.

Unknown is an unoriginal, innocuous two hours of technically serviceable entertainment. Its initially beguiling technophobic themes remain trapped in a generic environment that refuses to accommodate fresh articulation. But it could be worse, I suppose.

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