Unknown (2011 movie) review…

Unknown (2011 movie) review after the break…

Unknown (2011 movie) review…

I’ve written about this before but I’ll write about it again – What do you do when you already know the ending of a story? Does a movie “fail” if you can figure out the twist ending before the movie presents it?

Some movies, like “Titanic,” are based upon historical events so you already know how it “ends” – The boat sinks. People drown. Cue the sad music. Yet with movies like “Titanic,” the movie is not about the boat sinking but about a story within the boat that is not known and not based upon historical fact. Therefore, the historical setting is only a backdrop and not attempting an entertaining way of redressing a historical event.

Some movies, like “Gettysburg,” are also based upon historical events so, again, you know how it “ends” – The Union wins the battle, the Confederates retreat and ultimately lose the war a few years later. In movies like “Gettysburg,” the entertainment isn’t derived upon an unknown ending but on an entertaining way of redressing a historical event – The entire movie is about “Gettysburg” and so therefore the entertainment is derived from how scenes are displayed, the dialog in the script and how the actors portray themselves.

The 2011 movie, “Unknown,” starring Liam Neeson, is not a historical film. The film is completely fictional from start to finish – Liam Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, traveling with his wife to Germany to attend a bio-agricultural conference. When a briefcase is left behind at the airport, Harris goes back alone only to be involved in an automobile accident. The valiant efforts of a taxi cab driver saves his life but not his identity – A doppleganger has mysteriously taken Harris’ place and Harris must now uncover the truth behind why he has suddenly become “unknown.” Cue the Twilight Zone music.

While watching the movie, I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen this type of movie before – The premise of the film preys upon certain well-tread anxieties that Americans tend to have. The loss of identity, the loss of memory (to a certain extent), being “trapped” in a strange land (an aside – Are there any foreign movies out there of foreign people “stranded” in America? Not stranded as in, “Hey, I’m a single heterosexual guy who’s stranded on an island filled with beautiful women” kind of stranded but a “I don’t speak the language, I’m not certain of the customs and people are trying to kill me” kind of stranded) and the betrayal of a family member are all well-worn and one can perform a search engine request to find numerous films that fit those categories well.

Movies like “Unknown” mostly sabotage themselves because their script does not serve their premise very well. The premise of “Unknown” is – Who is Liam Neeson? Is he really Dr. Martin Harris or is he someone else and, if so, why? What results from that search ought to be secondary and feed off of that premise. Unfortunately, “Unknown” sabotages it’s premise by revealing, from the outset, that Liam Neeson is “Dr. Martin Harris.” We see him at the airport with his wife, on the airplane, in the taxi cab… It is an open-and-closed case. So the movie automatically must default to a lesser, “Why is there another Dr. Martin Harris?” subplot.

As in all such movies of this type, convenient inconveniences abound to perpetrate the movie’s core plot – The American Embassy is closed, cell phone signals (or, those notoriously unreliable cell phone signals in movies) are dropped, identification is missing… Once the premise is established, though, people will be screaming at their televisions to have the authorities perform basic surveillance checks – The security tape at the airport? Interview the taxi cab driver and hotel greeters? Check the security tapes at the airport of origin? Cell phone records?

I need to spoil the movie right now to continue with the review – Liam Neeson is Dr. Martin Harris in as much as that is his cover story, having been bonked on the head and now truly believes that he is that person. When he winds up missing, his assassin understudy takes his place which begs the questions – Why wasn’t there a female understudy for Neeson’s “wife”? What would have happened had she been the one to go back for the briefcase?

Movies such as “Unknown” are only as strong as their questions and if the questions can easily be answered or not even addressed in the film, the value of the entertainment decreases rapidly. All other events in this film – The assassination attempts on Neeson’s life, the romantic subplot with the taxi cab driver (because all illegal immigrant taxi cab drivers are hot single caucasian females, naturally), the old spy who figures it all out too late… Suffer because the primary premise of this film is compromised right from the start. A stronger re-write of this story would have started with Neeson waking up in the hospital because, then, we wouldn’t have known if he truly was Harris or not. Amping up the mystery behind the original premise would have helped all the other events in this story.

Had there been a stronger premise, the movie might not have felt compelled to reason why the couple was assassinating Professor Bressler. In the movie “Ronin,” no one is ever told what is in the briefcase and that works because the main premise of that movie is so strong. You don’t need to know what’s in the briefcase – The hunt for the briefcase and the betrayal in the team to get the briefcase are so strong that what is in the briefcase becomes secondary, almost trivial. In “Unknown,” the reason to assassinate Bressler is irrelevant to the point of superfluous – Why not have him be a weapons designer developing a new type of weapon? A professor in nuclear physics who’s found a way to reduce radiation levels at waste sites? Is a pet whisperer who has found a new way for cats and dogs to live together? What if your audience doesn’t give a crap about hardy corn crops? That was the beauty of “Ronin” – The briefcase was anything you wanted it to be.

The acting, the lighting, the direction… They were all sufficient. No one misses a cue, no one flubs a line but you expect that from a movie of this caliber. Liam Neeson is a distinctive figure so he can’t “disappear” into roles anymore. He is Liam Neeson as a doctor, Liam Neeson as a Jedi Knight, Liam Neeson as a… Whatever he needs to be. I was a little surprised at the age disparity of Neeson to his two female leads (his “wife” and the taxi cab driver). A bit of Woody Allen syndrome beginning to form? If anything, Diane Kruger is painfully miscast as a taxi cab driver because, let’s face it, a lot of Berlin taxi cab drivers are younger, fit, single, female and caucasian. Naturally. If anyone didn’t see “Romantic Interest” coming from a mile or more away, you need to change your E-Mail address before a Nigerian prince asks you for money.

“Unknown” might have been an interesting movie had the central premise been more strongly presented and the audience given a genuine chance to make a choice. The choice, sadly, is made for them and the rest of the movie’s impact is diluted as a result. Why not a movie where Neeson is still an assassin but never knocked off the original Harris? Why not a movie where Neeson fights the other assassins but not for noble purposes (after all, the other assassins would be dead and he would have the chance to be very wealthy)?

“Unknown,” sadly, is nothing more then a fair actioner interrupted by a romantic subplot that’s not very romantic and a mystery subplot that’s not very mysterious.

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