'Unknown' is an Overwrought Action Affair
Unknown -- Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra (Warner Bros.) -- 3 Stars
Liam Neeson’s most recent on-screen display of jaw-chiseling grit, “Unknown,” is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink action thriller which seems to draw influence from the genre’s entire canon. After a spectacular chance car accident in a European city, American university professor Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) falls into a coma, waking up to find his memory fractured and his identity stolen by another man (Aidan Quinn). Even his wife Elizabeth (January Jones)—with whom repeated and graphic flashbacks tell us he has showered at least once—will not vouch for Harris’s identity to the police. Evading arrest, the real Martin Harris embarks on a mission to find the people who stole his identity. Along the way, he teams up with Gina (Diane Kruger), a hard-working illegal immigrant with a perfect figure, a heart of gold, and a wardrobe that changes in times of duress, much like her accent. And yet this delightful fluff is tarnished by delusions of artistic grandeur. “Unknown” persistently tries to transcend its genre but gets only halfway there, ironically ending up in the cinematic no-man’s land of films which lack any real identity of their own.
Venturing where few action thrillers dare to go, “Unknown” forsakes the usual themes of redemption, revenge, and personal reinvention, and instead chooses to explore the self. The audience is put into the mindset of Neeson’s Harris; frustratingly, we are not given much more information than the doctor himself. Viewers thus experience the surreal disorientation of the protagonist’s identity displacement first-hand. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who pulls the audience into Harris’s predicament so completely, deserves credit for coaxing something meaningful out of a typically mindless genre. On the flip side, these high-minded directorial choices make other elements of the film unforgivable. What would normally be justifiable as over-the-top camp is now rendered unworthy and distracting.
A soaring and clichéd score, for instance, haunts every scene with any semblance of emotion. Sappy musical progressions instruct sympathy as opposed to suggesting it, in the style of such decidedly low-brow movies as “Armageddon.” Similarly, the usual attack on the senses that is so entertaining and engaging in traditional action thrillers is at odds with the film’s more reflective themes.
On top of these musical shortcomings, a rash of unconvincing performances populates “Unknown,” partly due to the clunky, clichéd dialogue of writers Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell. Mistaking blandness for subtlety, January Jones does her best impression of a brick wall, while Liam Neeson is forced to work with lines like “I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you, asshole.” While aspiring to action hero status of the Harrison Ford variety is no sin, and while Neeson admittedly brings an intensity and strength to his roles that few can match, his character’s unwieldy bravado leaves little room for the pretension that litters the film.
“Unknown” is replete with the sort of stock material that promises entertainment and genre-piety: a car chase through the streets of Berlin ending in the requisite explosion, a mistaken identity, a flashy Middle Eastern prince with dubious motives and even more dubious taste in facial hair, Bond-like spy devices, a ticking time bomb, and a secret code. In the end, the bad guys die, the guy gets the girl, and viewers leave the theater wanting to buy a Samsung phone and drive home in a Volkswagen. In other words, in the traditional action arena, the film delivers as well as the genre allows. But these elements are in constant tension with the movie’s more sophisticated and ponderous aspirations. The movie’s conflicting impulses are most pronounced when the film arrives at its obligatory climactic twist, which is fully understandable in a dramatic context but not in an action one. With a collection of cinematic qualities that fail to add up to a coherent whole, “Unknown” ends up as identity-challenged as its own protagonist.