Monday, March 7, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Unknown

Unknown ***½

The success of Taken back in 2008 (or 2009 for anyone reading in the states) has had a very profound effect on the acting career of star Liam Neeson. Irish actor Neeson was already a recognisable face, due to roles in films like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins, and a very well respected actor, having been nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA for his performance in Schindler’s List, but Taken showed Hollywood that he was more than simply a very good actor who people might recognise if they were to see him in a film, he was also capable of opening a movie big on his own and had what it takes to make it as a leading man in action thrillers.

Neeson’s popularity has only risen since starring in that film and, despite his age, he has shown himself to be very capable at doing action orientated content, his adeptness at doing this kind of stuff being something that he got another opportunity to display when he played Hannibal in last year’s The A-Team and now has another chance to show off in his latest action thriller, Unknown. A film that could perhaps be viewed as a sort of companion piece to Taken – trailers for Unknown has crafted something with a very similar look and feel to that film and the marketing has gone a long way to ensure that people make the connection between the two films, even using what appears to be the same lettering font on the posters – Unknown once again sees Neeson going into action in a European setting, Germany’s capital Berlin taking the place of French capital Paris, and, just like Taken the action here is raw and gritty in its presentation. 

While the setting here may be German – and the cast includes many German actors – however, the film’s inspiration is every bit as French as that of Taken, Unknown being based on the 2003 French novel published in English as Out of My Head by Didier van Cauwelaert and, while there may be some very notable differences between the two films, many will undoubtedly find Unknown perhaps a tad too similar to Taken. This is despite the film boasting some very key differences though. Originally titled Unknown White Male, this film, instead of being a full European production – German public film funds contributed a small percentage of the production budget and shooting took place entirely in Berlin but the production company providing most of the money is not German and neither is the director – is the latest film from Dark Castle Entertainment, the American production company who made their name with horror movie throwbacks to the horror films of the 1950s but more recently have been in the business of making action films and thrillers and Spanish born director Jaume Collet-Sera is a frequent collaborator of the production company, having directed their films House of Wax and Orphan

Also, whereas Taken was a more straightforward kind of action movie whereby Neeson’s character was hunting down the people responsible for abducting his daughter, Unknown is much more of a mystery orientated thriller. On a down note, whereas the writers behind Taken were seasoned and accomplished, the ones behind Unknown, Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, have little experience outside of TV movies most people probably won’t even have heard of. To expect Unknown to be anywhere near as good as Taken, though, would probably be foolish and it is inevitable that it will suffer by comparison but how does it fare on its own terms?

Imagine you've woken from a coma to find that another man has stolen your identity so thoroughly that even your wife doesn't recognise you. That's the reality facing Dr Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) when he awakens from a four day coma after a car accident in Berlin. At first, he struggles to recall who he is or why he is in the city but soon he recalls that he is a researcher who is there to deliver a speech at a biotech conference and sets about trying to find his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) so that she can fill in the details. However, upon finding her, he discovers that she suddenly doesn’t recognise him and that another man (Aidan Quinn) seems to have assumed his identity. 

Ignored by disbelieving authorities, to whom the other Martin Harris seems to be the real one – he has identification, documents and photos to prove it – Martin even starts to believe that he is crazy himself until, that is, mysterious assassins start hunting him and he realises that not only is he the real Martin Harris but he has stumbled into the middle of something far bigger than him. Finding himself alone, tired and on the run, Martin enlists the aid of former spy Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz) to find proof that he really is Martin Harris and tracks down the one person in Berlin who can confirm his identity, Gina (Diane Kruger), the woman who was driving the taxi which he was in at the time of the crash. Becoming an unlikely ally, she begins to aid him in his mission to discover who the person that has stolen his identity is and why they would want to replace him. Plunged into a deadly mystery, Martin discovers that he can trust no one, perhaps not even long time friend Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), who has just arrived in Berlin bringing with him a lethal and terrifying secret.

The opening scene of Unknown begins with a rather beautiful and very relaxed shot of the sun rising over clouds high up in the sky as viewed from the window of the airplane that Martin and his wife are flying in to Berlin on. Accompanied by light and relaxing musical tones, this starts the film off with a feeling of ease and tranquillity, a sort of calm before the storm as it doesn’t take a genius to realise that this feeling isn’t going to last for long. And it really doesn’t as the film wastes no time in getting to the crux of the story, the characters only being in Berlin for a few moments before Martin ends up in the crash and things really get underway, so little time that we don’t even get to know the characters before anything happen although, as we later learn, there is a reason why this is the case. This is a very fast and kinetic film and it really does seem that the filmmakers have tried to replicate the success of Taken with the same handheld camera style and fast editing being deployed here but without making as much impact as it did in that film. 

While the action is generally rather good here, the fight sequences – or should I say brawls – being thrilling and well performed by Liam Neeson, who still has it in the action department, and the car chases through the streets of Berlin being quite exciting and very well executed, the film just doesn’t manage to recapture the raw energy of that film and also lacks its visual flair, where Taken felt fresh, this film feeling rather more generic. The similarities to Taken are abundantly obvious and this film never really manages to escape that film’s shadow but there are some distinct strong points that Unknown can claim to be its own. 

The snow covered setting of Berlin makes for an appropriately chilly backdrop to the film’s events and adds to the feeling of paranoia that slowly builds up as Martin tries to figure out who he is and what the bad guys want with him, it being quite clear that he is being followed and the look of paranoia put across in the character’s body movements and all across his face – a testament to the strength of Neeson’s performance – makes the paranoia all the more authentic. There is an atmosphere of unease present for much of the duration, partly attributable to the score which largely consists of unsettling tones and partly due to the occasional jump scare – although this is not a horror film – but largely attributable to the paranoia. A rare moment of humour lightens the mood slightly but the film never forgets that this is first and foremost a mystery thriller, tension, suspense and action being the primary focus throughout and the film doing a rather good job in all three areas. Another area that deserves applause is the acting which is pretty good on most counts. 

Liam Neeson delivers a very intense performance and convinces as someone who is finding his entire world crashing down around him, his look of confusion when his character’s wife doesn’t recognise him being completely believable. He genuinely seems terrified and horrified as he finds his entire view on reality called into question and the truth about who he really is starts to come back and there are times when even we are made to question whether he really is who he claims to be. Of particular note is a scene where the two Martin Harris’ – Neeson and Aidan Quinn – talk in unison as they try to prove that they are the real one, which is superbly acted and perfectly timed. Quinn himself has a sinister screen persona, making us just know that he all is not right with his character. Diane Kruger is perhaps a bit underused when compared to her roles in such films as Inglourious Basterds but generally performs very well with her role. As for the other players, January Jones convinces as Martin’s cold and forgetting wife and Frank Langella is suitably sinister and mysterious as a character who starts out as a bit of an enigma. 

Despite having little experience in screenwriting, Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell do a more than adequate job with the screenplay. The story is quite a compelling one but doesn’t really dig much beneath the surface, the effects of trauma on the mind not being explored as thoroughly as they could be, the approach being purely that of a conspiracy thriller with few deeper aspects. At first, the absence of some character development at the start of the film seems like a bit of a failing but when the revelations come it isn’t hard to see why this lack of development is completely essential for the story to work. Character development is, admittedly, not one of the film’s strong points but what we do get, when we get it, is perfectly competent for the needs of the plot. Unfortunately, these revelations do prove to be rather underwhelming with the twist being very clichéd and not that hard to see coming but the story at least proves logical and the film is an enjoyable ride nonetheless. So, Unknown is not a perfect film, lacking depth and not being especially memorable but, viewed purely as a piece of entertainment, it does a more than passable job of providing the thrills and is perfectly sufficient for an undemanding night of cinema.

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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