Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Unknown (2011)

Unknown is a manipulative and clumsy thriller that nevertheless does enough right to succeed as a generally adequate suspense flick. And that’s about the nicest thing I can say about Jaume Collet-Serra’s movie (or any of his movies, since the best thing he's done on film was kill Paris Hilton in 2005’s House of Wax).

You won’t care about these characters, or necessarily buy into their story, or perhaps be willing to suspend disbelief as moronic logic prevails. You may appreciate Liam Neeson’s performance as a 54-year-old scientist-turned-action hero. I did not. But we’ll probably be able to agree that January Jones has all the talent of a pull-string doll – she looks pretty, but acts robotic. And if you figure out the twist at some point in the first act, you’ll be ahead of me, but just barely. And that’s too bad, because with a movie like Unknown, the twist is all you’ve got (fun fact – Collet-Serra also directed 2009’s Orphan, which is also, infamously, famous for it’s twist).

Let me set it up for you. We meet Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) on a plane to Berlin, where he and his daughter – er, I mean, wife – Elizabeth (Jones) are attending a very important conference. After providing that information to us via airport security, Dr. Harris deposits his passports into his briefcase, because that’s where all world travelers keep their passports. After hailing a taxi, Harris helps the driver with their baggage until Elizabeth curtly tells him to let the help do their job. But the help messes up his job, leaving the briefcase curbside.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I absolutely prefer to keep my important carryon item containing my passport at the bottom of my baggage cart where it may be haphazardly forgotten. Particularly when I’m a very important doctor speaking at a very important conference and that very important briefcase contains all my very important presentation information.  But moving on...

The absent-minded professor and his pleasant mannequin wife reach the hotel. She goes inside to check them in. He realizes his briefcase is missing. Without telling his wife, he hops in a different cab and heads back for the airport. Why doesn’t he tell his wife? Because writers Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell thought it was a neat trick to keep him off security cameras so they could later play that card when Neeson’s running around telling everybody he’s Dr. Martin Harris even though he didn’t check in with his wife.

Whatever. For some reason Dr. Martin Harris is in a different cab now, with local free spirit Gina (Diane Kruger). They crash. He goes into a coma, because he hit his head on the glass window. He wakes up and nobody believes he’s Dr. Martin Harris, even though he keeps telling everybody he’s Dr. Martin Harris, over, and over, and over…

Thirty minutes later he’s expertly driving a cab reverse down crowded walkways during a high speed chase when Gina says something like “wow! How are you able to drive like this, Dr. Martin Harris? I thought you were a scientist! Is this how all Americans drive?”

Wait. Scratch that. Gina doesn’t ask those questions. She just rolls with it, like we’re supposed to. But since we’re living, breathing people and not poorly constructed characters in a lazy screenplay co-written by a guy who last found work writing/directing 1996’s Marshal Law starring Jimmy Smits, well, we might ask these questions. And we might not like the answers (or lack there of).

Anyway, the movie’s alright. Diane Kruger is undeniably enigmatic, even when she’s simply playing “the girl.” And there’s enough fun KGB type stuff to distract you from thinking about all the weird mysteries that keep popping up, if you’re able to shut your brain off for a little while. Except asking questions about the mysteries is the whole point of a movie like this so… yeah.

You might watch a trailer for this movie and see it as another Taken. But Takenis secretly a very-well constructed film, deceptively simple while confidently executed. So this is sort of the opposite of that movie. It’s more like The Bourne Identity (2002) meets Frantic (1988).

Aw, crap – I just gave away the ending.


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