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Movie Review: Unknown (2011)

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Liam Neeson used to be a serious dramatic actor, but when he did Taken in 2008 he suddenly became the new “aging guy still kicking ass” action star as he triumphantly gave any bad guy a free punch in the face for having anything to do with the kidnap of his daughter. Now Neeson is back with another action mystery-thriller, the initially intriguing but ultimately disappointing Unknown.

Getting past the generic title (there have been three other movies with that same title within the last six years), the plot is an interesting one: Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris who, with his wife (January Jones) travels to Berlin for a conference. Through unforeseen events involving accidentally leaving his suitcase at the airport, he ends up in a coma after the taxi he was in crashes into a river.

He wakes up four days later with memory problems and desperately wanting to get back to his wife. Once his doctor (reluctantly) releases him from care he goes back to the hotel only to discover that his wife seemingly doesn’t know who he is and has another man claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris by her side. Neeson is the only one sure that he is who he says he is and he sets out to prove his identity.

If that ain’t an intriguing enough hook to get audiences I don’t know what is. But the trouble is that try as it might it just doesn’t have enough there to sustain the idea for the whole movie, the only interest in it beyond the initial premise being to find out the truth. And that would be fine if the truth presented was unique or even halfway interesting. Anyone paying more than the minimum amount of attention should be able to figure out what’s really going on – it’s one of those cases where you realize the twist but pray for that not be the case. But sure enough by the end it’s exactly what you thought it was going to be – as silly and boring as endings come. Predictability is never a good attribute for a mystery story to have.

Despite his over-the-top American accent (not one of his better attempts by a long shot), Neeson is actually well cast in the role. He doesn’t punch, kick and shoot as much here as he did in Taken but he still puts in a fair amount before the end credits. He is once again convincing as that sort of character, a guy who does what he needs to do to get things done. But instead of trying to hunt down his daughter’s kidnappers here he is looking out for number one, trying to convince people that he’s not crazy and is who he says he is. And even if it fails to give any deep meaning or resolution to the questions of identity or what your place is in the world, it still at least attempts to and in a strange sort of way that has to be admired.

Supporting Neeson are the likes of January Jones (an interesting actress who has been given a chance to shine for four seasons of AMC’s Mad Men and will soon be seen in the prequel X-Men: First Class) as Neeson’s wife; Diane Kruger (who most people will know from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) as the women who crashed the taxi Neeson was in; Bruno Ganz (who  previously put in a masterful performance as Adolf Hitler in Downfall) as a former Secret Police member who helps Neeson prove his identity; and Frank Langella as an old friend of Neeson’s who lends a helping hand.

Before this director Juame Collet-Serra made the ridiculous but hugely enjoyable Orphan and the needless remake of House of Wax. Unknown sits in between those two as a mystery thriller-turned-action movie that takes meticulous notes of every other film of this type to make an initially involving plot that ultimately plunges it into mediocrity. It’s not entirely enjoyable – when the going’s good it’s often tense and gleefully full of question marks – and certainly not terrible. It’s just a shame that the film couldn’t quite cash in on its great premise and has trouble deciding what time of film it wants to be. Unknown could have easily and ironically been entitled “Identity” – not just because of its premise but that, in spite of all its efforts, it doesn’t seem to be sure of its own.


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About Ross Miller

  • I liked the story quite a bit although the plot does seem to decline slightly as the movie progresses. Reminds me of Beautiful Mind in the way the main character draws into their make-believe world.