Friday, February 18, 2011

Neeson searches for identity in thrill ride 'Unknown'

By Steve Crum

In Unknown, Liam Neeson’s strong willed, righteous character goes on a tear against forces threatening both a loved one and himself. Er, wait a second. That describes Neeson’s 2008 flick, Taken--yet another double-syllabled, purposely vague movie title. But wait, there’s more. It also describes his current thriller, Unknown--with some differences. (A past box office hit can’t be totally cloned, can it?)

For one, Neeson’s current vengeful force, Dr. Martin Harris, is pursuing his own identity, and with it, his wife. In Taken, his guy tracked down his daughter’s kidnappers. In both films, Neeson’s persona is that of a relentless, one-man army, imparting death and suffering on those standing in his way.

Per formula, the gangly, towering Neeson appears first as a genial everyman who is soon provoked into commando mode. By the time he is on an fisticuffs roll, we are totally with him, sympathetic to his cause and boiling for revenge. It is a formula that has worked since the dawn of storytelling, and fits Neeson like an Isotoner glove.

Unknown is an old school thriller with edgy, frenetic action. Though not a perfect movie due to plot holes, Unknown hooks and reels us, however implausibly, for its nearly two hour running time. It is a thrill ride worthy of Hitchcock, which is high praise for its director, the relatively unknown Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan). Collet-Serra is a particularly stylish director, exemplified by the art gallery sequence, laced with cat-and-mouse weavings, by pursuer and the pursued, between and around painting display flats.

In fact, his directorial “weaving” is splendidly, and literally, showcased in several wild car chases shot in downtown Berlin. Talk about “wow.”

Collet-Serra has been very public about his admiration of the Master of Suspense and his film theme commonality. “My favorite films are those Hitchcockian thrillers that have that mysterious atmosphere,” he says, “where the audience is as much in the dark as the characters, and you don’t really now where the story is going to take you.” Unknown pretty much succeeds in this suspension of disbelief, as we root for our put upon hero to find the truth and, as previously said, himself.

That quest begins soon after Neeson’s Martin Harris and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) arrive at the airport in modern day Berlin to attend an international meeting. Arriving at their hotel, Elizabeth goes inside to check in as Martin discovers his briefcase is missing. A simple matter, he thinks, as he takes a cab back to the airport to retrieve the item. Circumstances occur, however, and the cab wrecks. Martin awakens days later, his memory unclear. But soon he remembers, and forges back to the hotel to find his wife with a stranger (Aiden Quinn), who claims he is Dr. Martin Harris. Since Neeson’s Martin has since lost his passport and any identification, no one believes who he is. This includes his wife, who adamantly claims Quinn’s Martin as her husband.

So the story goes, and so goes Neeson’s Martin, just as adamant about proving his identity, and trying to find the truth behind his wife’s motive in disclaiming him.

Along the way, as he is put in the position of defending himself against assassins, he elicits help in proving who he really is by way of a young woman, Gina (Diane Kruger) and Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a man of questionable past. Two others, played by Frank Langella and Sebastian Koch, also enter the equation.

One of my all time favorite TV programs was 24, which, week after week, clouded my logical sense via multiple plot twists, intense action, and loyalty to the central, determined character, Jack. It was not until after each episode that the show’s plot lackings would materialize. It was like taking a breath, and getting one’s mind back to solid ground. Unknown gave me a similar feeling. There are story questions that remain unanswered. For example, screenscribes Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell have created a Berlin with virtually ineffectual police. After long stretches of either violent car chases or violent shootings within the heart of the city, police as pretty much invisible. They certainly never show up to impede any wild violence depicted.

Worse yet, and this is the major weakness, if Neeson/Harris has no idea of who he really is, why isn’t any DNA testing done? His fingerprints alone should do the trick. This is 2011 Germany?

Still, Unknown is a nail-biter, an edge-of-seater, and a fast couple of hours. It is just as well that its action moves faster than logic.
GRADE on an A to F scale: B-
The known trailer to UNKNOWN: