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Published: Thursday, 2/17/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Into the 'Unknown'

Liam Neeson carries Hitchcockian thriller

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Dian Kruger helps Liam Neeson's character after he discovers his identity has been stolen. Dian Kruger helps Liam Neeson's character after he discovers his identity has been stolen.
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Twists are so common in movies these days one feels cheated if a thriller doesn't have some kind of major and unexpected plot change, something that places the main character and his circumstances in a different light.

The good ones, like the tease ending in Inception with the top spinning madly, don't necessarily change the story, but give you pause to consider and analyze what it means to the overall story. In the case of Inception, was Cobb himself trapped in a dream or was the top about to stop, indicating he was in the real world?

The bad ones, as in Shutter Island's big reveal that the entire construct had been an exercise in mental therapy, so drastically alter a film's foundation the story often buckles under the weight of the surprise revelation.

And then there's Unknown's twist, a rather ordinary plot diversion that subverts an otherwise terrific thriller, crippling the film's unique identity for thematic schemes largely borrowed from the Jason Bourne series.

For two-thirds of its nearly two-hour run time, Unknown operates at a gripping edge-of-your-seat suspense level, breathing fresh air into the tale of an ordinary man, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), who is placed in extraordinary circumstances. Martin is a brilliant scientist who awakes from a four-day coma after a car accident to find that his identity and life have been hijacked by another man (Aidan Quinn). Martin was in Berlin for an important biotech conference, along with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), who says she doesn't recognize him when he shows up at their hotel after the accident. Martin is missing all of his identification, making it impossible for him to prove who he is and that the other Martin Harris is an imposter.

Alone in Berlin with few options, little money, and speaking almost no German, Martin turns to the taxi driver who saved his life after the accident, Gina (Diane Kruger), for answers, as well as a former East German spy-turned detective (a wonderful performance by Bruno Ganz) who specializes in finding people.

But as Martin gets closer to learning what's happening, he discovers there are those who will stop at nothing to keep him from learning the truth.

UNKNOWN 

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Screenplay by Oliver Butcher, based on the novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert. A Warner Bros. Pictures release, opening Friday at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for soem intense sequences of violence and action and brief sexual content. Running time: 109 minutes.

Critic's Rating: * * *

Dr. Martin Harris ........... Liam Neeson

Elizabeth Harris .......... January Jones

Other Martin ........... Aidan Quinn

The story, based on the novel Out of My Head by French author Didier Van Cauwelaert, is a modern-day Hitchcock: smart, creepy, thrilling, and relentless. If only Unknown had stayed with its original conceit as a film about a lost man struggling for answers. Unknown works best when it throws Martin into a series of incredible events that leave us breathless and guessing what will happen next. After he learns the truth and his mission goes from seeking answers to stopping the bad guys much of that tension is deflated. It's a twist so underwhelming, the film's momentum crawls forward from then on and Martin's story and fate suddenly aren't all that important or interesting.

Unknown was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose previous credits include the 2005 House of Wax remake best known as Paris Hilton's film debut, and the 2009 spooky psychological tale Orphan. Unknown represents a large step up for Collet-Serra and the director takes advantage of the opportunity, delivering a vibrant aesthetic that keep things entertaining and fun, visually and kinetically. The gorgeous backdrop of Berlin gives the film a fresh veneer from the usual New York, Los Angeles, or London-based thrillers.

It also helps that Collet-Serra's directing a fine cast, led by Neeson.

Neeson has the dominant screen presence and acting chops to pull off the Hitchcock everyman role -- from confident to confused, scared to vengeful -- as well as the requisite ability to look and act tough when needed. The movie sinks or swims with Neeson, and he keeps everything afloat, even as the plot begins to take on water.

Perhaps the big twist worked in the novel, but onscreen it feels hokey, as if the screenwriters -- in this case Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell -- delivered a taut, original thriller that Hollywood managed to muck up by creating a more action-packed third act.

Unknown could have been much more than that, a slightly above-average thriller, and that's the worst twist of all.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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