Unknown

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B-

There are two fundamental ways to look at spoilers in terms of movie reviews. Most reviewers, rightfully so, avoid spoilers and instead focus on skeletal plot structures to draw their criticisms. The other option, of course, is to dive right in and get down to the gritty machinations of each plot twist. For many films, even those which rely very heavily on plotting, it’s easy enough to stay vague while still giving appropriate and insightful viewpoints. Some, however, make the task very difficult.

Unknown is one of those films. Because it relies on the audience to second guess and think ahead without overly distorting our impression of the facts, the film doesn’t have the re-watchability that the greatest of plot twist movies do. Which makes for a fine first viewing of the film — but I recommend that anyone interested in seeing the movie stays away from specific plot details. The fun is in the ride. By knowing the unknown, there may not be enough to keep you interested.

Lets start with the basic details. The movie opens with Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) traveling to Germany with his wife (January Jones) to present at a biotechnology conference. After he arrives, Harris is involved in a terrible car accident that induces a four-day coma. Worried that his arm-candy wife is alone in a city she’s unfamiliar with, Harris quickly returns to his hotel against the doctor’s will only to find that his wife doesn’t recognize him and there’s another Dr. Martin Harris in his place. The film takes off quickly from here, establishing clue after clue after plot turn after twist.

The film leads its viewers on this wild goose chase right along with Harris. The quick pace keeps us from really considering what is actually going on, which saves the film from becoming overly silly or boring. And although the sequence of plot twists don’t go anywhere unforeseeable (I mean, we have no doubts from the beginning that Harris is who he says he is and this is much more than a terrible misunderstanding or the symptoms of head trauma), the action in the second half of the film keep it thrilling and engaging.

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While Unknown is mostly enjoyable and a competent thriller/action film, I can’t help but take away points for not being particularly groundbreaking or memorable. And while there is nothing really wrong with a film striving for nothing but simple pulp, I have good faith that a year from now I’ll have forgotten seeing Unknown. Neeson’s previous crazy action film, Taken, will forever be remembered by its incredible over-the-topness and the “Holy Shit Is That Really Liam Neeson Kicking Ass” effect. Unknown doesn’t have this surprise and is a remarkably straight film for the subject matter.

Neeson does his best to keep this film believable and his performance is strong. Even as he entrenches himself as a middle-aged action star, Unknown works better when he brings the silent intensity that is more associated with his roles in Batman Begins and Chloe. While Neeson keeps from hamming it up, most of his supporting cast seem to either think they are in a different movie or are just not on the same acting level. Case number one: January Jones. I like her well enough in Mad Men, but this performance really makes me question whether she can act. In her defense, we must ask ourselves if her role is deliberately built this way. If so, this is a poor directing choice given her character’s role in the film. Her character may be the “bad actress,” but she must not be getting paying gigs outside of auto shows if that’s the case. A small role for Bruno Ganz (known for his beautiful performance in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire) is notable for giving the film its only humor.

Minor spoilers ahead: One thing I don’t quite understand is why must Martin Harris be tenaciously followed and killed? The weak reasoning the film offers up is the major problem I have with the plot. Feel free to persuade me why it’s necessary in the comments. Of course, the real answer to the question is that without this device, we wouldn’t have a marketable action film and Unknown wouldn’t have been made. I can accept this clunky problem given the circumstances.

tags: january jones, liam neeson, unknown

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  • Anonymous

    Great review. How is it Liam Neeson can hook up with January Jones, who must be like four decades his junior? Lucky man.

  • Grisly Gunnar

    It certainly can seem a little strange on the surface (although I believe it’d be more like two decades difference. And he is a silver fox, you know.

  • Cindy.

    Great Article. Might actually see the film now based on the review.

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