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Home Blog Popcorn Parent Movie Reviews Movie Review: Unknown (PG-13)

Movie Review: Unknown (PG-13)

unknownBy: Roxana Hadadi

Liam Neeson is a surprisingly badass guy. And if “Unknown” gave him more opportunities to be one, then the film would be an amazing follow-up to 2008’s embarrassingly guilty pleasure, “Taken.” Ah, what could have been.

Neeson is quite a serious actor – look to the Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List” and critically adored “Kinsey” for proof – but he’s been plunging headfirst into the action genre in the past few years, too. From his stint in the three most recent “Star Wars” films to roles in last year’s “Clash of the Titans” and “The A-Team,” Neeson has a flair for the melodramatic, and he used that to great effect in “Taken.” As a retired CIA operative hunting down the sex traffickers who kidnapped his daughter, Neeson punched, slashed and murdered his way through countless baddies in that thriller, eventually saving the day with his unremorseful ways. Best. Dad. Ever.

But where “Taken” was an unrelenting whirlwind of force, enjoyable in that base way reserved almost specifically for revenge flicks, “Unknown” takes its time, unraveling a story that eventually is somewhat yawn-worthy. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier van Cauwelaert, the film is set in Berlin, and for the most part the city is an appropriately drab, grey, gloomy background to the convoluted plot at hand, which unevenly tries to touch on illegal immigration, terrorism, government corruption and environmentalism during the film’s 113 minutes.

Things begin with Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), a professor and researcher who is traveling with his wife Liz (January Jones) to Berlin for a biotechnology summit, where Harris is to give a speech about his work. But when his suitcase, holding his passport and other important information, gets left behind at the airport, he leaves Liz at their hotel to go and retrieve it. A car accident and four-day-long coma later, Harris is in the hospital, with a nasty gash on his forehead and a spotty recollection of what happened. After piecing together that he was staying at the Hotel Adlon with Liz, he shows up there to reconnect with his wife and attend the summit – and learns that he’s been replaced.

Another man (Aiden Quinn) is now claiming to be Harris, wielding a passport with his name, a picture with his wife and reciting his research from his memory. Wondering if he’s gone mad or if his life has been snatched out from under him, Harris struggles to learn the truth. Suddenly everyone around him is an enemy – the guy on the train, a man staring at him on the sidewalk, a black sport utility vehicle that keeps showing up on street corners – and Harris tries to learn if he truly is being followed or if it’s just the paranoia and nausea his emergency-room doctor warned him about. Aided by Gina (Diane Kruger), the taxi driver from the night of his accident, and Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German secret police, Harris works toward the truth of who he is and which of his memories, if any, are real.

Much of the film is spent determining what Harris thinks is true versus what actually is, and as he wades through his memories and past, audiences do too. What he believes, we believe, meaning we could be thrown for a loop every new time Harris hits his head – and there are a lot of those moments. His story keeps changing, keeping viewers guessing as each fragmented memory struggles to fit into an increasingly complex web.

But this isn’t “Inception” or anything. If you can determine the film’s clues in the first half-hour or so, you’ll know what’s coming next – and instead of accompanying Harris on his journey of self-discovery, you can revel in the supporting actors here. By now Neeson can sleepwalk through beating up a guy and growling angry orders at people, so while his performance is steady, it’s not extraordinary – for that level of expertise, look to Ganz and Frank Langella. The former, as a probing perfectionist who admits his business is in “details,” is perfect; particular and wise, he’s aware of the baddies on their trail and is calm even in the face of undeniable danger. Play close attention during his face off against Langella, the film’s finest scene: an understated exercise in tension that pits two ruthless men against each other in the most subtle of ways.

Jones and Kruger are here, too, but the former does her whole Betty Draper-from-“Mad Men” thing, meaning she just stares blankly and looks vacant. Kruger’s role is more demanding, as an illegal immigrant working against her survival instincts to help Harris, but her role really just requires her to scream often and warn the men of impending danger. And there’s a lot of it: Necks are getting snapped; people are getting poisoned; gunshots and explosions and chase scenes abound. The violence is often brisk but intense, with a lot of hand-to-hand combat; there’s also one large explosion and some gross deaths, such as a glass shard pushed through a person’s throat. Cursing and sexual content also factor into the PG-13 rating, with an implied shower sex scene but no nudity. Older teens shouldn’t be too fazed by most of this, because while “Unknown” is sometimes bloody, the film overall isn’t too grotesque – it doesn’t revel in its violence.

It may be wrong to hope for another film as unabashedly bad as “Taken,” but the film made no apologies for its testosterone-heavy aggression-fest. “Unknown,” with its yearning to deliver social commentary on international issues while also killing most of its cast, tries to keep a balance that unfortunately never develops.

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