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Neeson’s ‘Unknown’ no match for ‘Taken’

February 24th, 2011

Neeson's character tries to uncover the truth in "Unknown"“Unknown” isn’t so much a bad movie as it is a misguided one.

No matter how hard he tries, director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) just can’t recreate the simplistic gravitas of the 2008 Liam Neeson action vehicle “Taken.”

The movie’s failing flaw? Not answering its own questions.

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) awakens from a coma he has been in for four days in Berlin after a violent car crash to shockingly discover that no one – not even his wife (January Jones) – recognizes him and that a mysterious man (Aidan Quinn) has completely assumed his identity.

This man knows everything about Martin’s life, down to the smallest detail. He has a passport, other identification, and even family photos.

Finding himself being endlessly chased by unstoppable assassins, Martin gets the help of an illegal taxi driver (Diane Kruger) and a shrewd detective (Bruno Ganz) as he tries to discover the truth of who he truly is.

Now some movies are made merely to entertain. For example, movies like “The A-Team” aren’t made to be great cinematic triumphs.

They’re made to give us a fun way of spending a couple hours.

But “Unknown” doesn’t pull that off. It’s gets bogged down by its own ambition, providing too many questions that remain unanswered.

Yet the movie does have a few engrossing moments.

The action is always solid, albeit offering nothing new, and the acting – especially from Neeson and Ganz – despite being given bland roles, is superior.

The most explosive scene of the film is surprisingly one that doesn’t contain explosions.

It is a seemingly simple scene with two men talking who realize that they are enemies, yet their tone remains forever polite, their conversation ever cordial.

Their samurai-like respect for each other comes to a head at the last moment.

The scene flows with the dignity of the famous Pacino/DeNiro diner scene from “Heat;”  either man ever says a menacing word or makes a threatening move, but we can’t help but watch with  captivation as if we were watching a much better film.

That’s the power of the scene’s subtlety – and it makes the one great scene the film offers.

Neeson has always had a ridiculously-mesmerizing screen presence, and that is obvious in “Unknown” as well.

He’s got a panache that is a joy to watch. Without a doubt, Neeson is the bright and shining center of why “Unknown” may still be worth seeing. I just can’t get sick of him. Ever.

Jones of “Mad Men” fame and Kruger of the “National Treasure” series are nowhere near as fascinating here as they deserve to be.

They seem more like eye candy than anything else. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s not what one would expect from actresses of their caliber.

But the great casting aside from Neeson is the indelible Ganz, who nails every scene he gets and brings about some of the best moments in the film.

Now the film is gripping to a point. Then it shoots itself in the foot. It doesn’t take long into the third act to realize how few answers we’re actually going to get. Why did someone do that? Why is anyone fighting to the death in the first place?

Soon, none of the characters’ motivation makes any sense.

Aside from that, the answers we do get are much too tidy. I don’t like my exposition being fed to me in a baby bottle.

Screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell assuredly gave it their best shot by trying to follow the writing of “Taken,” but instead all we are given is a tacked-on ending which fails to answer many of the major issues.

It’s like the writers just got bored with it all and decided to just finish the script the night before it was due. This has to be the weakest ending I’ve seen since “Knowing.”

Suspension of disbelief is an important element to a story like this. A great movie can quickly turn into a notorious one if the ending just doesn’t take (e.g. “Knowing”). Now “Unknown” can be included as failing to deliver on such an intriguing premise.

Ultimately, “Unknown” is a movie that was a couple screenplay drafts short of ironing out all the kinks and becoming great.

And while I’m all for just sitting back and watching Liam Neeson being awesome, the setup promised much more and we deserved much more.