Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taken into the Unknown

In 2008, Liam Neeson made an interesting career move when he starred in the thriller Taken. In that film, he played the vengeful father of a teen kidnapped by human traffickers while on a trip through Europe. It was considered a dark and startling film (no, I'm afraid I missed it), and the Irish-born actor really made an impact with his gritty, physical role that was unlike so much of his career to date. On top of that, it was a box office success, confirming that Neeson made an excellent choice moving to the thriller genre despite enjoying much success in more traditional dramas... and Star Wars. Typically when thinking of Neeson's career you imagine his romantic comedies, period pieces, and strictly serious fare. You think of Schindler's List. Taken probably shouldn't have worked. Instead, it put new life and a nice twist on Neeson's resume. Well, three years later he's trying to repeat history by doing the exact same thing. The film he's attempting to accomplish this with is Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, based on the novel by French author Didier van Cauwelaert. In this new release, Neeson's character is faced with the loss of more than a mere daughter, and the film was the main reason people made their way to the theaters this past weekend.

"You're going to be Taken... no wait, wrong script"
Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who arrives in Berlin to make a presentation at a biotechnology summit held in the city. Arriving with his wife Liz (Mad Men's January Jones), Martin suffers a head wound in a traffic accident involving his taxi and wakes up after several days in the hospital with no knowledge of how he got there. Worse, when he finally finds his wife, she doesn't seem to recognize him, along what we are led to believe is an impostor Martin Harris (Aiden Quinn) who has ample proof that he's who he says he is, while Neeson's Martin has none. Is the man who thinks his name is Martin Harris suffering from brain damage? Or is he somehow being replaced, for some nefarious purpose?

Still better than The Phantom Menace
While Taken seems to have had some basis in plausible real-world scenarios (the trailer came complete with basic statistics on human trafficking and sex slavery), the same cannot really be said for Unknown. While identity theft is certainly a major problem in the world, even moreso thanks to the wonder that is everybody's personal information online, the story presented here takes it to such a ridiculous degree as to be both unlikely and unbelievable. What comes of this is a film that doesn't make much sense from scene to scene, which actually works since we as the audience aren't meant to understand what's happening until nearly the final credits. We're constantly wondering whether Martin Prime is the real deal or somehow just very knowledgeable of the real thing; we really wonder whether the main character is simply suffering from serious brain damage or is really having his life stripped from him unceremoniously. This is helped by taut pacing that varies between supporting either side of the argument, while never dropping us into a situation where we have no interest.

Seriously... She's German... playing a Bosnian... IN BERLIN
There can be little doubt that this film wouldn't make a dent on the American psyche without the stellar acting of Neeson. Much of the movie has him playing the every-man, and his believable distrust of his own memory pretty much makes the film as inviting as it is. Of course, he also gets to play the bad-ass, but that comes slowly, with Neeson playing the reactor much of the time, not the instigator. As that builds, we get to see his whole world fall apart, until he gets the gumption to do something about it. Diane Kruger plays an illegal Bosnian immigrant who helps Martin try to figure out what has happened. While it's odd to see a German actress play a Bosnian immigrant IN GERMANY, Kruger does a decent job with the role. Like Neeson, she also plays an everyday person, like so many trying to get out of the rut in which they find themselves. January Jones is one of those actresses who seems so out of place in this era. She would have been a natural in the days of Marilyn Monroe, but in this era there's only one role she seems to play, the seemingly innocent and frustrated housewife. There are few actresses I would accuse of being merely a pretty face, but unless Jones shows some more variety in her acting talents, I really don't want to see her play anything other than Betty Draper. Aiden Quinn is great as the "impostor" Martin, with some of the film's better scenes involving the two Dr. Harris' dialogues. Sebastian Koch has a small and unimportant role, and is only notable for his earlier performance in the excellent Lives of Others. Frank Langella has an uninteresting role that is nonetheless important to the film's plot. Since being nominated for that Oscar, Langella has certainly enjoyed his career resurgence. It's a shame not all his roles he's carried since then are worth watching. The best of this cast (besides Neeson, of course) might be Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a former Stasi agent who agrees to help Martin learn who he really is. Ganz's character Jurgen reflects on how the German people are so good at forgetting, citing their ignorance of Nazi rule and forty years of communism, and prides himself on never forgetting and being proud of his history, making him easily the film's most original and interesting role.

You REALLY don't want to know what they're seeing right now...
Unknown's story is almost completely unbelievable, lacking any restraint to bring the narrative down to a reasonable level. This at times results in the film being unintentionally funny. When Neeson and Quinn try to convince Dr. Bressler (Koch) that they alone are the real Martin Harris, they deliver the same lines at the same time and with the same tremors in their voices, resulting in roaring laughter from the audience in what is supposed to be a serious moment. I wouldn't be surprised if the scene had the same effect on the players during filming, either. The dark moods of the film also have the effect of making even small one liners much funnier than they actually are. Of course, then someone gets knocked off and you're back in first gear, but the sad thing is that these scenes aren't even the film at its silliest. Yes, the plot is THAT flimsy.

"It's okay, it's almost over"
It might be time to stop taking things from Liam Neeson. Seriously, I can only wonder what revenge he would seek upon those who switch his coffee for Folger's Crystals. Still, he's the one thing that made Unknown as enjoyable as it was, and good for #2 right now on the year's Top 10. Still, you know where this is headed. Every few years someone takes something special from Neeson, and he goes on a rampage trying to get it back. Eventually it has to stop. Don't get me wrong, I mostly enjoyed Unknown; I just think that after moonlighting the thriller genre for a few years, it's high time he went back to films that have the ability to use him at his full potential, not ones that use his many talents just getting closer to that glass ceiling. And no, I'm not talking about Star Wars.

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