Friday, February 18, 2011

Unknown [2011]

MPAA (PG-13) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (2 stars) Fr. Dennis (2 ½ stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

Things are not as they seem ...

Unknown, starring Liam Neeson, is a kind of Hollywood paranoid suspense thriller that’s been relatively common in recent years. Viewers will find clear thematic similarities to Matt Damon’s Bourne Identity as well as to Liam Neeson’s recent film Taken. Older viewers will also notice obvious homages to Harrison Ford’s thriller Frantic.

In each case an American finds himself lost in an exotic city in Europe and Europe proves to be a bewildering and hence dangerous place. While Unknown, Taken and The Bourne Identity are all clearly presented as fictional stories, bewilderment -- the struggle to figure out who exactly is who, and who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad” – forms a large part of the subtext of recent more historically based movies like Munich and The Good Shepherd (both largely set in Europe during the Cold War era) as well as countless movies set in the post 9/11-Middle-East (Syriana, Green Zone, The Kingdom, Body of Lies, etc). Add to these recent fictional movies about the cold methodical lives of fictional assassins (George Clooney’s The American, Jason Statham’s The Mechanic, Nicolas Cage’s Bangkok Dangerous) and it would seem that portions of Hollywood are making really good money producing films that portray the world as a bewildering place where danger lurks around every corner and pretty much everyone is a potential enemy, all this being especially true when one ventures outside the more familiar confines of the good ole U.S.A.

One could criticize Hollywood for exploiting and even feeding American post-9/11 fears, but I do tend to side with “apologists” here who respond by saying that these movies would not work if they did not touch a nerve. And even if most of these movies are set off American shores, _none of them_ present the “good” and the “bad” along clear ethnic or national lines. Indeed, that makes for a great part of the bewilderment expressed in these films. Almost everyone becomes suspect, both nominally friend and foe, and the protagonists as well as the audience are given the task to sort it all out.

Unknown is exactly this kind of movie. The audience is presented Liam Neeson playing the role of a botanist Dr. Martin Harris traveling with his wife Elizabeth (played by January Jones) to a biotech summit in Berlin. While entering a taxi on leaving the Berlin airport, Neeson’s character's briefcase gets left behind. Arriving at the check-in counter at their hotel, Neeson’s character realizes that his briefcase is missing. Without even telling his wife, he quickly hails a cab to take him back to the airport to retrieve the lost bag. Trying to call his wife on his cell phone to tell her where he’s heading, he can’t get a signal. Before he knows literally what hit him, a refrigerator falls from a truck in front of his cab while the cab is crossing a bridge. The cab driver a Bosnian immigrant named Gina (played by Diane Krueger) swerving to avoid plunges the cab off the bridge and into the river.

Four days later, Neeson’s character wakes-up from a coma in a Berlin hospital and is first surprised and then worried that his wife wasn’t able to find him. He checks himself out of the hospital against the attending doctor’s advice, and finds his way back to the hotel where he and his wife were to be staying. To his astonishment when he encounters his wife, she denies knowing him. Further, he finds she’s being escorted by a man who looks reasonably like him and who also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. What the heck just happened?

The rest of the movie gradually fills in the story. The viewer is invited to follow along, to sort out the good folks from the bad. More crucially to a story like this, the viewer is also invited to render judgement on whether the story ultimately makes sense at all.

As a thriller (and as a puzzle), I found Unknown to be reasonably engaging. It did keep one's attention. Still the more interesting question for me remains, why movies like this are “working” (successful) in the U.S. and at this particular time in our history?

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting review. I just caught this film on TV in late 2011. I was more interested in what did and didn't make sense. In a way its like a B movie yet with great production values and actors.
    However, to your points: There is some kind of convergence of Hollywood filmaking and conventions that no longer accepts the hero (or heroine) simply taking on the "bad guys" and winning. Instead, to make it more interesting, the hero him or herself is confused about why they are acting or need to act in this way. Amnesia, of course, is a great ploy to do so.
    Enjoyed your review.