THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
It's hard to watch Unknown and not think of Taken. Both films put star Liam Neeson into action mode. Both are set in foreign cities, and involve a man trying to solve a mystery (and get vengeance upon those responsible for doing something bad) in a strange land. I was no fan of Taken; it was #2 on my ten worst list the year of its release. There has been no shortage of people telling me I'm crazy for that, but I stand by my opinion. I like Unknown a lot more. Neither film is particularly realistic, and both haul out familiar conventions. This one doesn't have the nasty streak that ruined Taken for me. Available on DVD and Blu-Ray Combo Pack on June 21, it's a decent home viewing experience - perhaps not something you'd have wanted to pay full price for at the cinemas, but satisfying for an evening at home.
Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, who has traveled to Berlin for a biotechnology summit with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) in tow. Just minutes after arriving at the hotel, he realizes he's left his briefcase at the airport. On his way to retrieve it, Harris is in a horrible taxicab accident during which he suffers head trauma. Upon awakening from a multi-day coma, he discovers that some other guy (Aidan Quinn) is claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris, and Elizabeth is backing that up. Harris knows he has suffered a blow to the head, but doesn't believe that his injuries are responsible for what's going on. He tracks down the cabbie (Diane Kruger) who pulled him from the wreckage, and sets out to discover why everyone is acting like he's not himself.
Truth be told, there's not much about Unknown that's new. We've seen stories about amnesia victims trying to piece together bits of their memory before. We've seen the requisite car chases and fistfights and shootouts that take place here. You could accurately say that this is a "routine" thriller.
In spite of that, when a formula is well done, it can still be entertaining, and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) executes the formula well. He gives the story a tight pace and a visual style that emphasizes the idea that Harris is "lost" (i.e. tinting the images, using off-kilter camera angles, etc.). Collet-Serra stages one heck of a chase scene, too. The one that takes place near the middle of the movie is extremely tense, with some superb stunt work. It additionally helps that the plot legitimately keeps you guessing. The ultimate resolution is far-fetched, at best, yet because you don't know where it's going, it is easy to get hooked.
There's something to be said for casting, too. Each of the actors seems really right for their role; Neeson's brings his stoicism, Jones' displays her patented iciness, and Bruno Ganz injects a delightful, wizened quality into the part of a former Stasi agent who helps Harris. Even when the story mechanics get silly, the cast does dependable work.
Unknown is entertaining, which is what matters most in the thriller genre. I didn't believe a second of it, but I certainly had fun watching it.
( out of four)
Unknown will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray Combo Pack on June 21. It will also be available for rent on demand through digital cable, satellite TV, and IPTV. You can purchase it for permanent download or rent it on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles.
The bonus features are surprisingly short - less than ten minutes' worth, in fact. "Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero" is a brief segment in which the actor talks about why he enjoys action roles, while his co-stars expound on why he's so good in them. "Unknown: What is Known?" is a promotional piece that recycles a lot of the same sound bites as the first segment.
Unknown is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.