Friday, February 18, 2011

Unknown - Theatrical Review

Release Date: February 18, 2011

For 2 years now movie studios have been trying to find some way to recreate the miraculous success of 2008's surprise hit Taken. This time last year they promoted the hell out of the director of Taken's follow up feature From Paris With Love which landed with a resounding thud. This year they are banking on the star of Taken to bring home the bacon with his new film Unknown. From the advertising campaign, "Take Back Your Life", to the poster art, and the way the trailer shows Liam Neeson kicking ass this film has been painstakingly manufactured using Taken's good name to get you in that theater this weekend. Did it work...? Well we will find out soon enough but more importantly is it any good?

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 12:01 am February, 2011
Projector Type: Digital

Loves: Liam Neeson, Mysteries
Likes: Taken
Neutral: Diane Krueger
Hates: Movies banking on the success of another movie
Where's: Taken 2?

It is strange how Liam Neeson has attained the moniker of action star only now at the age of 59. His list of film credits up until a couple years back comprised mostly of dramas or at the most the occasional thriller. While it isn't a far fetched idea, the man stands well over 6 feet tall, I just never saw him as a guy that would kick the crap out of people or be involved in numerous elaborate car chases. This status of an action star came about only because of his previous performance as a man that would stop at nothing to find his kidnapped daughter in the film Taken. In his new film, Unknown, he is a man who will stop at nothing to find another person but the twist this time around is that the person he is looking for is none other than himself.

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his lovely wife Elizabeth Harris (January Jones) have just arrived in Berlin for a Science Summit taking place in the upcoming week. Not too long after they arrive does Martin realize he forgot something at the airport and on his way back his taxi is involved in a sudden car accident that leaves him unconcious, and due to having no type of identification on him, unknown. When he awakes a few days later he finds himself slightly confused after recovering from a hit to the head and a mild coma. After he puts some pieces back together he heads out into the city to locate his wife. However, when he finds his wife he realizes that he isn't the only one having trouble remembering things when she claims to not know who he is. Then as he attempts to figure out why his wife of over 5 years doesn't recognize him appears a man that claims to be Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) as well. Soon he discovers that with no form of identification on him, no one knowing whom he is and with every attempt he makes to prove his identity a failure he finds himself alone in a foreign city with nobody to turn to.

Who is the real Dr Martin Harris?

That is all of the film's plot that I dare give away. Like any good mystery thriller the fun of experience is in discovering the pieces to the puzzle as our lead character does (and stay far far away from the trailer because it gives EVERYTHING away). Dr. Harris is in a person's worst nightmare, his wife, old friends, and even that dam internet says he isn't who he says he is. Neeson has always excelled at playing the part of a man that is frustrated and angry that at once seems broken but still has that willpower to carry on to find the truth. And the truth that he seeks is probably one of my favorite aspects of the film. How it toys with our connection to Neeson's predicament. The film is really good at providing one baffling situation or question after another with each answer just making the overall story that more insane.

Is that woman really his wife? If so then why doesn't she know him? Why would another man pretend to be him? Is that other man pretending to be him or is he just having memory lapses due to that hit on his head? Why would an internet search at the university he teaches at show a different person? How is it that this other man claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris has all the same memorbillia that he does and even shares certain memories as him? Most importantly though is if he isn't crazy like everyone thinks he is, why would anyone want to replace him? If any of these questions intrigue you then I guarentee you will get a kick out of how they are answered and you will probably not see any of it coming. I usually pride myself on being able to think two steps ahead in a film like this but it seems as though the film makers were thinking three steps ahead this time around. Even when you are given an answer that seems completely plausible it more often than not turns out to be either untrue or just another sign post to the truth.

Why doesn't she recognize her husband?

The journey that Neeson's character goes on is where most of the fun of the film lies. His search for answers leads him all over Berlin where he comes in contact with a surprising variety of locals that want to help him. There are two specific individuals that provide him with much needed answers though. The first is the woman, Gina (Diane Kruger), that was driving the taxi when they got into the car accident that left him in a coma. She saved his life by pulling him from the car as it sank to the bottom of the river but as soon as the paramedics and police arrived she fled the scene in fear of being deported (illegal aliens are destroying the economy in Berlin we are told). After some time on his own he tracks her down and although she doesn't have all the answers to his questions she becomes a valuable asset in his hunt for his identity.

The other character he goes to for help is probably one of my favorites in the film and that is an older gentleman by the name of Ernst J├╝rgen (Bruno Ganz). He is a people finder, give him some information and he will track them down with ease. I love this type of character in films like this, when there is no one left to turn to for help always look to an outsider or stranger for help. His character comes along at just the right time as well. Just when I was starting to get fatigued by the whole "is he or isn't he crazy" gimmick, this guy comes into play and we finally start to get answers, or at least we think we do. That is one aspect of the film that I absolutely loved, how it would set you up and make you think you are on the right trail just to pull the rug out from under you. But that would become tiresome after a while so they wisely always kept something that we find out to be true so that we are kept on our toes.

Dr. Harris and his unwitting companion Gina.

Now is the time I would normally go into the actor's performances but honestly there is only one performance that matters in this film and that is Liam Neeson. I had absolutely no problem believing his characters motivations and his decisions. I suppose a lot of that had to do with the writing as well, but everything he tried to do made perfect sense to me. His reactions and questions while at the hospital were spot on, when he finally begins to wonder if he is really going insane I believed every word he said. Let's be honest here though, this role really isn't a stretch for the man, he has had many other more challenging and taxing roles over the years. He is just so good with this type of character though, I honestly believe if he had been playing characters like this back at the beginning of his career he would have been type cast in films like this for years.

And yes, everyone else involved did a fine job but they too didn't have anything to difficult to work with. This is a type of genre film that rests its fate solely with how well everything is executed. The usual problems that arise with a film of this nature is how believable everything is. If there are any instances where we see a character do or say something that we know is complete horseshit then we will check out immediately. The reason for that is because the film is asking us to put aside such things as logic and real world rules so it has to create its own internal logic and rule set that makes sense. I believe that the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, did an admirable job of convincing me that this could actually happen to someone, but there were still some hiccups that distracted me unfortunately.

Just look at this guy, doesn't he just scream mystery?

First of all is that Neeson's character seems to be a walking bank. Whenever someone asks for cash or he needs some funds for the random cab or train ride he has the money on him. I am not talking about just a little pocket change, he hands it out like it is growing on trees. This would make a little more sense if he maybe had his wallet on him when the car accident occurred but the whole premise of the film is that he cannot prove to anyone (including himself) that he is whom he says he is and if he had a wallet I am pretty sure there would be some form of identification in there. So where the hell is all this money coming from? I have no idea and to be honest it didn't really bug me until midway through the film. It just made it a little less believable when a man that had been stripped of everything had an unlimited cash fund.

Another gripe I had was with how circumstantial many of the set pieces were. It is impossible for me to get into details without giving key plot elements away but when they happen I guarentee you will have the same reaction that I did. What I mean by circumstantial is how certain scenes either are concluded or begin with the happenstance that a key character is either able to see (and hear) something from a distance no human being could have possibly seen. Then there are moments when someone is put into danger and it just so happens to be in the same exact location another character is at. These are not issues that will kill the film for anyone but like I said before, this type of film lives and dies with the details and how they are presented us. Luckily there weren't many and what there is happens mostly near the end of the film after you have already invested in the story.

Yes, Liam Neeson gets to kick some ass.

Finally I would like to point out the one factor that is most likely to convince people to go see it this weekend or not. This is not Taken, far from it actually. Don't be fooled by the advertisements. While there are fleeting moments of action (as well as a rather long and unexpected car chase) Neeson is not playing the same character as in that film. Take that as you will, I for one am glad that this isn't a carbon copy of Taken. I liked that film just fine for what it was and Neeson is too gifted an actor to be saddled with the same role over and over again (although Morgan Freeman got stuck in that rut after Seven). This is a really fun mystery flick that will have you guessing at every turn. Whether or not you will like it's eventual outcome is anyone's guess but I can assure you that the journey getting there was plenty of fun. So if you're in the mood to have your brain tickled this weekend by all means...



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