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Overall Rating

Awesome: 2.63%
Worth A Look: 31.58%
Pretty Bad: 15.79%
Total Crap: 0%

5 reviews, 8 user ratings

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Unknown (2011)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Better Than the Still-Excellent 'Taken'"
4 stars

Another Liam Neeson action movie? Yep. is it well worth your time? You bet. In fact, I could stand one of these every month.

Breathlessly exciting, nail-bitingly suspenseful, ingeniously written, excellently performed, dynamically directed, the Liam Neeson star vehicle Unknown would have made the famous Alfred Hitchcock very proud, and will leave audiences gasping in their seats begging for more. In a day and age when most mainstream American thrillers fail to do the job, it's quite the pleasure to be able to sit back and enjoy something made by talented moviemakers who know exactly what they're doing. Neeson and his box-office action hit Taken wowed us three years ago; and Unknown is even better -- the best of its genre since Paul Haggis's extraordinary The Next Three Days. It starts out calmly, methodically, with Americans Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and wife Elizabeth (an alert January Jones) arriving in Berlin for a highly-publicized bio-chemistry conference; they taxi from the airport to a posh hotel, and are about to check in when Martin realizes the taxi driver left his briefcase on the skycap cart by the curb. With Elizabeth already inside the lobby, Martin hurriedly flags down a taxi and heads back to the airport, but he's involved in a freak car accident: the cab careens off a bridge and into the water, causing Martin's head to slam against the window; he's knocked unconscious, but the driver manages to save herself and him. Martin awakens from a coma in the hospital four days later and can't remember the accident; without any identification papers on him, his identity is unknown to the staff. He claims to be Martin Harris, and remembers the hotel he was to be staying at; wanting to find Elizabeth, who he's sure is worried over his disappearance, he checks himself out and heads over there. He enters a ballroom reception where he sees Elizabeth and goes up to her, and is quite surprised that she claims to have no earthly idea who he is; and worse, she calls a man over who himself claims to be Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn, underused), with the name on his nametag supporting that. Understandably, Martin's perplexed, and when he causes a scene he's escorted out by security; in the control room, he tries to get them to believe him, and has them pull up his page on his website, and the photo next to his name is not his, but the other man's; and a call to his oldest friend in America is of no help, either, with an answering machine picking up. Martin convinces the security head not to have him arrested, that he was told by the hospital's doctor that confusion is to be expected.

We find ourselves as helplessly fascinated as Martin by his frightening predicament, and we stay with him all the way, experiencing and learning things as he does, left to decipher the sparse clues and wondering whether all of this is some kind of dream in light of the seemingly convincing evidence that he just might not be who he says he is. Why would Elizabeth be lying? And why would this supposed imposter have all the right identification as well as Elizabeth's confirmation? But then more strange things happen: an SUV with dark-tinted windows may be tailing him on the city streets; and a rather sinister-looking man may have been following him down a subway platform and almost into the subway before the door closes. And all the while memory flashes of happy days with him and his wife keep coming back, whether it's them posing happily at a restaurant table in front of a camera, or some hot and heavy sex in a shower. But what about the flashes of Elizabeth with darker, shorter hair? And for a marriage of five years, there's something a bit off about the memories -- they're too limited in variety; or maybe they're fabrications of an impaired mind. Perhaps there's some relevancy pertaining to the guests of honor at the bio-tech conference: a distinguished scientist who's developed a revolutionary kind of crop cultivation that will end world hunger; and a wealthy progressive Arab prince who's been funding the research and has been the target of assassinations by extremists from his home country. And it would certainly be disturbing if there are inimical efforts at work against Martin, for this would require extensive preparation on the part of any enemies with just four days time to wipe out his identity and put someone else in place. Endless questions to the unknowable? The crackerjack screenplay keeps everything perfectly aligned, dexterously proportioned so we're never given too much information to fully decipher, though we are thrown some decent clues in a fragmentary manner -- when the action heats up and Martin is trying to both stay alive and convince others of his validity, his apprehensively-frazzled mental state doesn't leave much in the way of comfortable downtime to fully think things through. And Neeson, always a stalwart, is the perfect actor to embody all this. There isn't an emotion he isn't required to convey, and he never overplays his hand -- he has the confidence that the camera will reach in and get his quietly concentrated performance.

Kudos also to director Jaume Collet-Serra, who displays true technical virtuosity; and not just with the spectacular action sequences -- including a downtown car chase that's right up there with the one in The Bourne Supremacy (which is also character-revealing in that we know a straight-laced scientist couldn't possibly be driving like James Bond) -- but tricky non-action ones, like in a crowded museum where Martin is following Elizabeth to get her alone while eluding an assassin who's keeping an eye inside to see if Martin shows up. It's a rare director who has an acute character sense, an instinct for how to stage the goings-on so we never lose sight of the dramatic center grounding everything -- if we weren't caught up in Martin's internal turmoil throughout, if his ever-increasing paranoia didn't easily become our own, the movie would be mechanically forgettable. But Martin isn't the only one of interest, for the screenplay supplies a couple of strong female characters, Elizabeth and the spunky cab driver, Gina (a fine Diane Kruger), who saved Martin's life and eventually becomes his ally, and an elderly East German private detective (Bruno Ganz, in a lovingly detailed acting job), who Martin enlists to check out his story. Oh, there are some quibbles. Martin survives two attacks when it would have just made sense for the assailant to shoot him dead on the spot, especially when two innocent bystanders (a nurse and a CAT-scan technician) have had their necks broken right before. Why it needs to look like an accidental drug overdose is pretty shaky. The detective is a wonderful character, yes, but he doesn't really discover anything that useful, and when this otherwise-one-person's-view picture shifts to scenes with him alone, some of the narrative immediacy is sapped. The casting of Frank Langella, who usually plays sinister sorts, along with the low-angle shot that introduces him, telegraphs his character's duplicity. And while the final hand-to-hand fight is well-choreographed, it would have been better had it come to a close before a plastic-explosive device goes off on the upper floor of a building, not continued afterward. Still, the majority of Unknown works so superlatively that you're carried over the occasional lapses. In lesser hands, the movie could've easily lost its grip and turned ludicrous; in the capable mitts of this first-rate cast and crew, it's marvelously persuasive at getting us to believe the incredible. With more delicious twists than a Coney Island pretzel and phenomenal entertainment value, it's something of a mini-classic.

The DVD sports fantastic video and audio, and it's got an interesting behind-the-scenes featurette. No chapter stops, though. Weird.

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originally posted: 05/03/12 11:24:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Berlin International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/27/12 David Pollastrini A fine performance from Neeson with twists and turns. 5 stars
12/24/11 debbie hodgdon keeps you wondering, but I know someone who figured the ending 30 mins in. 4 stars
7/03/11 mr.mike Only complaint is it slows to a crawl towards the end. Still worth seeing. 4 stars
6/26/11 action movie fan good loss of memory thriller recalls gregory peck,s 1965 thriller mirage 4 stars
6/06/11 Shaun A The trailer hooked me, and the movie delivered, which is rare nowadays. 4 stars
3/26/11 M. Rogers Liam Neeson has found his niche in action movies. 4 stars
2/24/11 vadermccandless Surprised me. Really fun in a knock-off Bourne way. 4 stars
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  18-Feb-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 21-Jun-2011

  04-Mar-2011 (12A)

  18-Feb-2011 (M)
  DVD: 21-Jun-2011

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