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Liam Neeson And January Jones Disappoint In "Unknown"

Holly Butcher |
February 22, 2011 | 12:19 p.m. PST

Senior Arts Editor

Unknown” should really be entitled “Known.” The prefix “un” would be much better suited before a descriptor like “original” or “bearable.”

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax,” “Orphan”), along with screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, adapted Didier Van Cauwelaert’s critically acclaimed novel “Out of My Head” for the big screen, and the results are UNimpressive.

The story centers on an American man (Liam Neeson) who suffers a freak accident in Berlin, then wakes up from a four-day coma convinced he is one Dr. Martin Harris. However, no one believes he is who he claims to be, including his blonde bombshell of a wife, Elizabeth Harris (January Jones).

After frantically opening his eyes and fretting to the hospital staff about his lonely wife in a foreign city, the man endures pitying looks from a nurse (Eva Löbau) as he learns that no one, not even his loving wife, has reported him missing. From here, Harris (or whoever he is) begins to unravel. He will need to fight to convince the world of his true identity.  A doctor sympathetically explains, “there are no rules with severe trauma like this."

This obvious stab at foreshadowing opens the door for a “nothing is as it seems” type of narrative, but falls far short of the mind-bending antics of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” or “Memento.”

At least the fairly predictable plot of “Unknown,” which has another man step into the protagonist’s life while he is recovering, is not as turgid as Neeson’s acting.  He cannot seem to help but saturate the film with blandness.

Neeson utters every line haphazardly and unemotionally, making it sound as if his head injury has transformed him into a robot. There is no natural cadence or authentic emotion when he is confronted with an apparent impostor, nor as he explains his unfortunate situation to the authorities. 

The actor’s attempt to convince the other characters that he is “Dr. Martin Harris” is unbelievable, not only to the other characters, but also to the audience.

Yet throughout the film, the viewers are encouraged to root for him and his version of the truth. We see Neeson entering Germany with his wife and holding her hand on the plane, so, obviously, he is Dr. Martin Harris. And then after the accident, we glimpse flashbacks to his previous life with Mrs. Harris in vivid yellows and greens (as if we need assistance distinguishing reality from memory).

But as the recollections of the husband and wife blur in and out of focus, the only picture that becomes clear is the unconvincing chemistry between Neeson and Jones. Neither sparkles in the other’s presence as in other onscreen interactions (think: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis – or Tom Arnold, for that matter - in “True Lies”).

“Unknown” includes several plot twists, as any action thriller must, but these are buried beneath stiff acting, and lame, drawn-out car chases (the vehicles involved are merely a generic black SUV and a dingy white Mercedes taxi – uninteresting).

Worst of all, the pivotal scenes feel rushed. The game-changing ending is abrupt but not shocking because the more alluring aspects of the storyline have not been given space to develop. The same can be said about the film’s more appealing characters.

Diane Kruger co-stars as Gina, an illegal immigrant from Bosnia who plays ally to the alleged Harris as he tries to take his identity back. Kruger, a German native, masters English with a Bosnian accent and troubled times behind her piercing blue eyes. We know Gina has been through hell and Kruger brings a healthy dose of emotional baggage to the role.

Unfortunately, Gina’s back-story of life in conflict-ridden Bosnia is mentioned only briefly, at a loud, strobe-lit techno club. She alludes that these men chasing “Dr. Harris” are like the ones who murdered her family. This plotline has much more potential than any scene involving the dark-haired, dark-eyed thug with no lines (Stipe Erceg) who pursues Neeson through Berlin for one scene too many.

Then there’s Bruno Ganz, who portrays Ernst Jürgen, a former member of the East German secret police. Ganz injects comic relief into the film, tackling communism, dictatorship and espionage with dignity, wit and sadly, limited screen time. His role is fascinating (who doesn’t love the Cold War), funny and prophetic. Both character and actor spy something tiresome about the movie; Jürgen easily predicts the plot twist(s) and Ganz takes every encounter with a grain of salt.

Whereas successful thrillers like “The Usual Suspects” bring an original plot and compelling characters to the genre, “Unknown” fails to hold interest and adds little to the craft. The most compelling aspects of this film are not clever twists, sizzling romances or astonishing action sequences, but glossed-over characters that leave us wondering who we could have “Known” better with a more successful execution.

Reach editor Holly here.



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