Friday, February 18, 2011
If "Unknown" (opening February 18 throughout San Diego) looks somewhat familiar, it is.
Once Hollywood smells money, it's can't be thrown off the scent. "Unknown" tries to cash in on the unexpected popularity and box office success of the 2008's Liam Neeson starrer "Taken." Both films are formulaic thrillers with Neeson as a man on a determined personal mission. In "Taken" it was to find his kidnapped daughter; in "Unknown" it is to recover his memory. Both films feature an encounter at a foreign airport; a desperate search for someone (in the case of "Unknown" for the character's own identity); and facing a seemingly omnipresent opponent capable of great stealth and violence. Plus, the lead character in both seems blessed with the ability to do everything right – race cars through crowded, busy streets, kill with precision, and manage to get around in a foreign country as if he were right at home. "Unknown" even changes the title of its source material -- a novel called "Out of My Head" -- to a single word to be more like "Taken" as well.
In "Unknown," Neeson plays a scientist named Dr. Martin Harris who is supposed to be presenting at a conference in Berlin. But on the way he gets in a car crash and loses his memory. But what little he can recall doesn't jibe with what others are telling him. Even his wife (an unbelievable January Jones) denies even knowing him and has registered at the hotel with another man claiming to be the real Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). So the rest of the film is about the first Dr. Harris trying to prove who he is and that he's not crazy.
The film doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Its twist at the end explains some inconsistencies only to raise a whole new set. But director Jaume Collet-Serra (a Spaniard is at the helm this time; for "Taken" it was France's Pierre Morrel) keeps things moving swiftly enough that while you are watching you might be willing to suspend your disbelief and just go along for the ride.
The twist that occurs fairly late in the film prevents critics from talking about the film's shortcomings in full detail. But I can say that it sort of paints itself into a corner and in order to come up with a resolution it has to brush over some unpleasant facts about the main character. It suggests in the end that one's past can be forgotten and therefore forgiven, which carries an odd resonance considering the film brings up Nazis and the Stasi. I'm not sure what the message is or – if in all the excitement of creating a thriller --the filmmakers simply didn't consider the implications of what they were saying.
"Unknown" is slickly packaged and likely to attract a similar crowd to "Taken." It also arrives at a time when viewers may be worn out from somber Oscar fodder and asinine romantic comedies. "Unknown" also benefits from a mostly able cast. Neeson is once again determined and driven. Bruno Ganz makes a lovely cameo as a former Stasi officer now working as a kind of private eye. Frank Langella also makes a brief and effective performance. As I mentioned, January Jones stirs suspicion from the start because she's badly cast as Harris' wife. She seems too young and just not the type to be a scientist's wife. Diana Kruger fares better as the cab driver that is involved in the car crash and gets drawn into the intrigue.
"Unknown" (rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content) is formula entertainment and as such delivers pretty much what you'd expect. For some that will be enough. For others it will elicit yawns and maybe a case of amnesia once you've left the theater... I'm sorry, what film was it that I was talking about?
Companion viewing: "Taken," "After.Life," "Memento," "Amateur"