Film Review: “Unknown”

by Jason LeRoy on February 18, 2011

Diane Kruger and Liam Neeson in UNKNOWN

starring: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella

directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content.

Unknown is Liam Neeson’s latest step toward becoming the world’s unlikeliest 60-year-old action star, or at least since Harrison Ford started wheezing so much and making everyone uncomfortable. However, this film is much more than just Taken: Redux. While watching this supremely effective thriller, I found phrases like “rollercoaster!” and “thrill machine!” bouncing around in my head. It is a fundamentally ridiculous film, but Unknown still delivers some major action-flick goods while rarely pausing for a breath.

Neeson plays Martin Harris, a doctor who has just arrived in Berlin for a major biotechnical conference (sure). He is accompanied by his trophy child-bride, Elizabeth (January Jones). Things seem to be going well for, oh, the first three minutes. But we know something terrible is about to happen, in part because Elizabeth is smiling so damn much. Any time you see a spouse being overly cheerful and radiating sunshine at the beginning of a movie, you can usually expect that person to be killed or otherwise vanquished within the next few minutes.

It is especially unnatural to see Jones smiling and attempting to laugh gaily, at least for those of us familiar with her increasingly hateful and bitter Betty Draper on Mad Men. Watching her try to act carefree is like watching her do The Worm. But fortunately the smiling bit only lasts as long as it takes for Martin and Elizabeth to take a taxi from the Berlin airport to their hotel.

While Martin realizes he’s forgotten his briefcase at the airport and takes another taxi back to retrieve it, Elizabeth attempts to check in. “Dr. and Mrs. Harris for the Eisenhower Suite, please,” she coos briskly. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Harris, but the Eisenhower Suite might not be available,” the hotel attendant says. “WHAT?” she snaps. “Why NOT?” And, sigh, there’s our Betty. You almost expect the camera to pan over and reveal poor Sally Draper in the corner, trembling in a bellhop’s uniform.

Anyway, that’s not the important part. So, Martin gets in a cab that is being driven by Gina (Diane Kruger, styled as though auditioning for the role of Lisbeth Salander), a Bosnian immigrant. But a harrowing car accident just moments later lands Martin in the hospital. He wakes up four days later, disoriented and suffering partial memory loss. When he finally remembers why he’s in Berlin and what hotel he was staying at with Elizabeth, he immediately goes to find her.

But there’s just one problem (at first): when Martin finally finds Elizabeth, she has no idea who he is. Not only that, but she introduces another man (played by Aidan Quinn, looking Kennedy-esque) as her husband. A man named..Martin Harris! So Martin sets off trying to figure out WTF is going on, eventually locating Gina and recruiting her for his crusade. But when vicious murderers start trying to bump off Martin at every turn, it becomes clear that there’s something much more insidious going on than a mere case of memory loss.

Unknown is an exceptionally deft at isolation suspense: Martin is in a foreign country, which he is visiting for the first time, and in which he does not speak the language. The only person who knows him is now a stranger to him. It is an American holiday, so the embassy is closed (does that really happen?). All his identification was in his briefcase. He has very limited funds on his person. And, of course, he can never get a cell signal. But as silly as things get, it’s still riveting.

Jaume Collet-Serra is quickly becoming one of my favorite B-movie directors. As he’s previously demonstrated in such guilty pleasures as the Paris Hilton remake of House of Wax and the legendary Orphan, he is adept at taking schlocky source material and investing it with enough style and sinister wit to make it worthwhile. Neeson, of course, is a great actor who sells all the absurdity here with a sympathetic straight face. Jones has found yet another role which plays well to her natural solemnity and stiffness. And Kruger, so good in Inglourious Basterds, is edgy and captivating.

We know there will be twists in Unknown, and yet it still managed to surprise me. It hurtles relentlessly forward, maybe losing a bit of steam in its final act (which features an unintentionally hilarious and Darwin Award-worthy sequence in which Ms. Jones attempts the most casual bomb-defusing I’ve ever scene), but still packing one hell of a PG-13 punch.

RIYL: Taken, The Bourne Identity, mistaken-identity/identity-theft thrillers

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Edward Yopp March 8, 2011 at 8:12 am

can’t wait to see this movie.. This is another movie about identity theft. People stole identities and pretend as they are. Companies like http://www.identitytheftprotection.org is an expert in solving identity theft.

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