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‘Unknown’ deserving of a little notice

POSTED: February 17, 2011 1:30 a.m.
/Warner Bros. Pictures

Liam Neeson stars in the European-style thriller "Unknown." Neeson plays a doctor who awakens from a coma, only to find that his life has been taken over by a stranger.

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"Unknown" is a movie about redemption, both behind the camera and on screen.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra's last movie, "Orphan," was morally repulsive — a creep-fest that exploited its young actors shamelessly for nothing more than shock value. There was no point to it, the writing was bad, and I hope Collet-Serra is appropriately ashamed of his work on it.

But I am a forgiving fellow, and "Unknown" is a respectable penance. In fact, I'm convinced that Collet-Serra has found his true medium, the European-style thriller. While "Unknown" isn't a great movie, it shows a level of skill and formal maturity Collet-Serra hadn't displayed in his previous work.

The scenario seems fairly standard for a paranoid thriller. Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife of five years, Elizabeth (January Jones), arrive in Berlin for a biotech conference, at which Martin is to give a speech.

When they arrive at their hotel, Martin realizes he lost his briefcase. He jumps into a taxi driven by a (rather fetching) Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger). An accident forces the taxi off a bridge and into a river. Gina saves Martin's life, but he takes a heavy blow to the head.

He wakes up from a coma four days later with vague memories and no passport. When he tracks down Elizabeth, she claims she doesn't know him. Things really get confusing when another man (Aidan Quinn) appears and claims he is actually Martin Harris.

So Martin is alone in a foreign city with little money, no identification and no idea why his wife is pretending this other man is her husband. Oh, and he's also trying to elude a handful of hit men who keep trying to kill him.

With the help of Gina and a former Stasi agent named Ernst, played by the legendary Bruno Ganz, Martin tries to solve the mystery and survive.

He discovers, however, that the situation is not what it seems, and Martin may be running from his own demons.

The film does an admirable job of keeping us guessing. Just as Martin — and we — think we've figured it out, a new twist changes the whole game.

"Unknown" is reminiscent to another Neeson starrer, "Taken." Neeson carries this film equally well, continuing to do action better than he should be able to at his age. Kruger (whom we last saw in "Inglourious Basterds") again proves she should be getting more high profile roles.

The movie is elevated, though, by a supporting cast stronger than most action films. At 70, Ganz still has an incredibly powerful presence, and his restrained performance goes a long way toward grounding this film.

Sebastian Koch (from "The Lives of Others") has become a heavyweight star in his own right, and it seems only a matter of time before he joins the many other European actors who have used a few Hollywood movies to become international stars.

And just when the movie needs a kick in the pants in the third act, Frank Langella enters and steals two scenes.

The script is so-so, but all this acting talent could make almost any writing seem better than it is.

The movie gives fans of the genre the set pieces they expect. There are a few fun car chases, more than one big reveal, and a maze-like plot that isn't so convoluted we can't understand.

We're in the midst of the disposable movie season, when even the good pics will be forgotten by May. Usually, the most we can hope for is solid entertainment.

"Unknown" over-achieves, though. I wouldn't call it a thinking man's action movie by any stretch (some third-act choices undermine that idea), but there are no superheroes or robots, and none of the actors recently graduated from a Disney television series.

Think of it as brain candy for adults.


Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.

 



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