Review: ‘Unknown’

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1. There is something inherently reasonable and honorable about Liam Neeson, and I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is. From "Darkman" to "Husbands and Wives" (one of my favorite puppy dog Liam Neeson roles, so opposite from the fightin' man he has improbably become) to "Schindler's List" to even "Batman Begins," Neeson makes you root for him from the minute he shows up screen. It's another reason he'd be so perfect as the non-vampire-hunting Abraham Lincoln in the oft-delayed Steven Spielberg biopic they're always putting off making: He seems noble and defiant before he ever says a word. It makes sense that he'd eventually become an action star; having an audience's instinctive sympathy has always been more important than having muscles. Don't think of Neeson as some sort of serious actor slumming in thrillers. Think of him as sort of a new age "Presumed Innocent," "Witness"-era Harrison Ford. Pretty good for a guy turning 60 next year.

2. Ford's a good analogy, because Neeson's new film "Unknown" is basically a worse, more ludicrous, glossed-up version of Ford's "Frantic," directed by Roman Polanski in 1988. In that film, Ford wakes up in Paris and finds his wife is missing; in this, Neeson has a car accident in Berlin and finds his wife (and everyone else, apparently) has no idea who he is. (He's not so sure himself.) In both films, our heroes meet a beautiful stranger (Emmanuelle Seigner in the first film, Diane Kruger, as the cab driver in his crash, in this one) who helps them find out what's going on, and both of them feature surprises at the end that make you re-evaluate everything that has come before. But whereas "Frantic" is a film Hitchcock would have been proud to make, "Unknown" wouldn't have made it out of Hitch's sock drawer. (I imagine him having enormous stockings.) That doesn't make "Unknown" terrible. It just makes it a film that, if it weren't for Neeson, you'd run out of patience with halfway through.

3. The main problem with the last analogy is that "Frantic" is directed by Roman Polanski, and "Unknown" is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose first film co-starred Paris Hilton. That's not particularly fair to Collet-Serra, who keeps his film's silly plot moving along well enough, but "Unknown" only wants to pretend to be a Hitchcock-ian international intrigue thriller rather than actually be one. The film just keeps putting Neeson in difficult situations of increasing improbability, leaving him in the dark as to what is happening all around him, and then lets him wrangle his way out. This would be more exciting if Collet-Serra had much of a feel for action sequences; "Unknown" has what must be the dullest car chase scene I can remember. Though, to be fair, it is difficult to remember boring car chases. I always feel bad for the stunt coordinators and stuntmen on these endless, predictable chase scenes, who probably having so much fun smashing cars into other cars that they don't realize they've just put a massive amount of effort, money and risk into a five-minute scene audiences sneak to the bathroom during.

4. Yes, yes, the plot. Neeson is trying to figure out who he is, and why his wife (January Jones, who is extremely convincing at playing an attractive woman and less so at just about everything else) is pretending that Aidan Quinn (who hasn't kept himself in as good of shape as Neeson has) is her husband. He also might have thought to ask why he was blessed with the good fortune to have Diane Kruger as his cab driver; no one in Berlin must ever use public transportation. He tries to piece together his lost memories with the help of Kruger and a former Stasi agent played with considerable good humor by Bruno Ganz. Then he meets Frank Langella wearing a fedora, and when you meet fedora-ed Frank Langella in a movie, the odds are excellent that something terrible is about to happen, and it is happening because of some vague, mysterious conglomerate that secretly rules the world. All this sort of piles upon itself, and what started as a mildly intriguing innocent-man-wrongly-accused pseudo-thriller just turns into series of lame implausibilites in pursuit of an ending.

5. You still almost go along with it, even if you see The Big Twist coming (and its subsequent unlikely plot machinations), thanks to large part to Neeson, who never once stops to wink at the absurdity unfolding all around him. Neeson has been obsessively working since the sudden, shocking death of his wife two years ago (by my count, 13 movies since then), and few of the films are anything you would call "prestigious." But that doesn't mean he doesn't work in them, carrying with him a certain casual gravitas, if such a thing is possible. In paint-by-numbers, straightforward, forgettable thrillers like this one, he keeps you watching and interested in the outcome, even if you already know what's coming. Especially if you already know what's coming. That might not be Serious Acting as approved by the Strasberg school, but it's a legitimate, rare skill. I'd watch the guy in anything. Even a bunch of car chases.

Grade: C+