Film review by: Witney Seibold
I don’t know about you, but I’m comforted by the fact that Liam Neeson is a viable action star. He’ll be 59 this year, and is still being sold as not only a bear-like tough-guy, who can throw punches, drive fast cars, and fly through the air while firing two guns and going argh, but also as a charming sex symbol who can easily be on the main entre menu of both Diane Kruger and January Jones. What’s more, he a hugely talented actor, who can play goofy and tough just as well as he can play resolute and wounded. In a way, Neeson is an ultimate movie star in the old fashioned sense; he capable of all kinds of roles, and manages to appeal to all audiences. He can recite heart-rending speech about how his wife has left him for a handsome Spaniard, but lends equal credibility to ridiculous action dialogue.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Unknown” is rife with dialogue of the latter category. It’s an utterly silly action thriller that depends on wild coincidences, unplannable events happening with split-second precision, and a premise that not only doesn’t pass the refrigerator test, but will have you furrowed in confusion on the way back to your car. These, I proclaim, are not necessarily detriments to action films in general; indeed the 2009 Neeson vehicle “Taken,” is marked by the same qualities, and was probably the most enjoyable action film of that year. “Unknown,” however, doesn’t strike the same spark of ludicrous fun that “Taken” did. It’s too ponderous. Not quite bizarre enough. Perhaps, and this may sound odd, a little too altruistic and morally responsible (which is a disappointment from the director of the bugnuts crazy and endlessly enjoyable “Orphan” from 2009). “Taken” was an unabashed revenge fantasy. “Unknown” is just a pat assassination thriller.
Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is in Berlin to give a speech at a botany symposium of some kind. In this universe, high-powered botanists are wealthy, get star treatment by other countries, and have hot blonde wives. Martin is married, in this case, to the gorgeous Elizabeth, who has a platinum blonde hairdo, large pretty blue eyes, high round boobies, and little-to-no talent. Martin leaves an important briefcase behind at the airport. Oops. He catches a cab being driven by the hot blonde Gina (the hot blonde Kruger), and immediately gets into an accident. He comes to several days later in a hospital, and rushes back to the hotel to meet his wife who now, mysteriously, doesn’t recognize him. Indeed, another man (Aidan Quinn) is now claiming to be Martin Harris. Pictures have changed. Passports have changed. Is Martin going crazy, or is there really some kind of oddball conspiracy against him? And who would want to conspire against a botanist?
The ensuing mystery is an airtight one, if not a plausible one. We eventually enlist the help of Kruger, a soulful ex-Stasi officer (the excellent Bruno Ganz, slumming it), and a soft-spoken friend (Frank Langella). I won’t give anything else away, suffice to say that there are assassins lurking about, and they do tie in, in an odd way, to the botany lecture.
This is a film where you’ll find yourself frequently asking “how did the bad guys plan that?” If that one guy was in that one place, how did they get the other guy to be in the other place? How did they hide that thing in the place where they knew it would be found by just the right person? And can a car going full speed in reverse down a sidewalk really outright another car going full speed forward on a clear city street? And did that cab really blow up two times throughout the course of the film?
Logical errors in action flicks are not so big an issue, provided the thrill are fun and the ridiculous premise feeds into the plot. “Unknown” is full of local color, great performances, and strangely moody photography, but doesn’t ever ratchet to the levels it needs to to be enjoyable. It’s just another largely forgettable Euro-chase film to add to the passive viewing list.
Fans of Neeson, though, will still find him a delight.