Monday, February 21, 2011

Academically Better Than It Is Entertaining, Unknown Is Still Worth Watching!

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting plot, Cool characters
The Bad: Predictable, Seems overly familiar
The Basics: Unknown is a surprisingly good thriller that might not keep viewers guessing, but uses the conceits of the genre well.

Last night, I had a brief excursion to the movies. The comic book store I now work in is in a mall that features a movie theater and my wife gave me leave to take in a few films last night. She actually recommended Unknown to me, based upon the previews she had seen. That is a rare enough thing for me; both to be sent to the movies for fun without my wife and to have her making recommendations to me on what to see. Still, I took her advice and saw Unknown first. I am generally pleased that I did.

But the truth is, Unknown is stuck in February for a reason. February, like late August through the end of September, is a dumping ground for films that are not going to be huge blockbusters and aren't going to win the big awards. Oscar Pandering Season is over, the March Relaunch hasn't happened and Summer Blockbuster Season is months away - but being heavily advertised now - so Unknown is stuck in a placefiller release slot and the most disappointing aspect of the film is that it feels like it is in that slot. Without ruining anything from the movie, Unknown is a very typical thriller, so much so that within five minutes of the movie's opening, the seasoned film viewer will have the film narrowed down to a medical conspiracy film or a death dream film - like Jacob's Ladder or Passengers (reviewed here!). And, it pretty much follows that mold until a scene in the last half hour when the truth becomes self-evident and then the movie rushes to its end.

The most serious issue with Unknown, then, is that it does not do anything that the viewer feels they have not seen before. The film is academically interesting, but throughout the movie, I continually felt like I was watching something I had seen before or I did not believe would do anything truly new. And it didn't. But it was not unenjoyable, either.

Dr. Martin Harris and his wife, Elizabeth Harris, are traveling to Berlin for a biotech conference where Harris will be presenting his research. While Elizabeth attempts to check into their hotel, Martin realizes that an important briefcase that was left behind by the taxi driver at the airport is missing and he flags down another cab to return him to the airport. En route, the cab is in an accident which results in Martin suffering a severe head trauma and his life is saved by the cab driver. Martin awakens in a hospital four days later and goes in search of his wife.

Unfortunately for Martin, when he finds Elizabeth at a conference social event, she does not know who he is and there is another man at the party who claims to be Martin Harris whom she treats as if he were him. Talking his way out of an arrest to return to the hospital, Martin spies on Elizabeth and sees that she does appear to believe that the Other Martin is him. Trying to piece together what is going on, Martin tracks down Gina, the cab driver who saved his life, and he enlists the aid of a former East German secret police officer, Jurgen. Jurgen believes something is amiss and asks Martin to bring Gina to him as he begins to investigate the aspects of the case that make no sense. But recovering Gina again, puts Martin's life in danger and Gina in the crosshairs of killers who seem to want Martin dead!

Unknown shines out of being perfectly mundane only in its characters and in the performances that create them. Jurgen is an especially interesting character and what is so refreshing about him is that he is as smart as a character in his position is supposed to be. He is a former spy master and he asks the key questions. It is Jergen who accepts the premise that Martin is who he says he is and challenges Martin's neglect of the Other Martin. It is Jergen who asks what the benefit of having a (any!) Martin Harris at the biotech conference is and he is the one who seeks out the loose ends and pulls on the right strings. Jergen is the one who solves the mystery while Harris is running around for his life, fleeing killers.

It is in the killers hunting Martin Harris that the movie feels most familiar. Starting with Harris walking toward a subway and sensing he is being followed, Unknown plays off information received late in the film to make such intuition actually make sense. In other words, a research doctor has no real reason to suspect that someone walking in a hallway is after him and in Unknown when that happens it feels contrived . . . until the final act.

Similarly, Unknown suffers some from the fact that the dialogue is strangely fractured in places. More than any movie I have seen of late, I felt like there were deleted scenes in key points and the editor might not have compensated for them. So, for example, when Gina finds one of her friends dead at an assassin's hands, she rushes back to her own apartment where Martin is fighting another assassin. Gina does not tell Martin her friend is dead or that she is being pursued, but Martin responds to her as if he has that information and the viewer who is attentive is left feeling like something is missing. Between that and moments where the score was instantly evocative of the score from Inception (reviewed here!) in the distinct moment when the train is bursting down the city street, Unknown feels both repetitive and like it is incomplete.

That said, the acting is wonderful in Unknown, even if it largely falls within the realms of predictable greatness. While Diane Kruger's Russian accent slips as Gina, Frank Langella's late entry into the film makes up for it. He plays Rodney Cole with a cold detachment that is well within his range and he is easily as good as Liam Neeson is throughout. Neeson embodies Martin Harris well and Aidan Quinn makes the most out of Martin B with the two playing off one another like well-trained musicians in key scenes they are together. January Jones, Elizabeth, gives a more memorable performance with her bare back than some actors make with pages of dialogue.

But it is Bruno Ganz who steals the film. If Unknown had been released during Oscar Pandering Season, he would have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ganz plays Jergen with a precision that appears effortless and his character's decrepit body is painful to watch during most of his time on screen. When Ganz coughs as Jergen, the viewer feels like he is well into the twilight of his life and his character's chances of survival are slim. One feels like he might topple over just researching for Martin Harris, but when he listens, Jergen is clearly formulating thoughts and Ganz makes that interesting to watch. Ganz does what great supporting performances ought to, which is to elevate a minor role to one that is memorable. Ganz outshines the leads because his character is so apparently minor and he makes it profound.

Ultimately, though, Unknown is a little better than average, but it looks better on the page than it does on the screen. The idea is an average one and it is only the players and a few of the details that make it worth watching. Generally, viewers can do better - at least this weekend - but I suspect the film will do better on DVD. . . which begs the question of why they bothered to release it for the big screen first.

For other films featuring Liam Neeson, please check out my reviews of:
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
The Next Three Days
The A-Team
Clash Of The Titans
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Love Actually
Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Schindler's List


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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