Summary: A standard, gutless thriller that mostly fails as cinematic craft and relies too heavily on its talented cast.
Review: Mmm. There’s nothing like a film that plays like a first draft. A first draft, we may surmise, written by a team of bored writers whose physical diet is 95% sugary coffee and whose sole source of cinematic nutrition is Americanized Euro-thrillers. ‘Unknown’, as you might have guessed (you clever fiend! *twirls mustache*) is just such a movie. It really does seem like a hastily cobbled script that was either commissioned or bought by producers who believed that the path to success lay in capping off a shoddy structure with a shiny star, in this case Liam Neeson. It doesn’t cut it, folks. Liam Neeson is a great actor, but despite his best efforts he can’t save a film that’s damned to the recycling bin.
There is, of course, the inevitable comparison with the surprise 2009 hit ‘Taken’, released in the same time of year with the same star and European setting. ‘Taken’ treats Liam’s character like a retired Jason Bourne almost devoid of conscience. You don’t assign him to missions, you just turn him loose. I think people were in awe of Liam’s ability to kick ass, but that’s a fact of life reinforced by better movies, like ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The A-Team’. Nothing particularly special about ‘Taken’, though it’s a bit subversive because of how cold-hearted and impressively efficient the protagonist is. I saw it four times in the theater, both in appreciation of its finer points and for social reasons, but I didn’t have the itch to see it again. Until this film showed up on the horizon, that is, promising another Neeson action vehicle. ‘Unknown’, however, fails to ride the gravy train. It doesn’t give us ‘Taken 2: Took”. He doesn’t go into badass mode until the inevitable climatic fight scene, and I felt cheated. I was deceived by advertising, which I guess is unsurprising.
‘Unknown’ is generic. One could craft a better film after visiting the Thriller index on TV Tropes. I suspect they did, but failed to use the tired genre elements in a way that created lasting suspense. It feels long. ‘Unknown’ has the kind of raw Hitchcockian material that can be stretched so tight, you could pluck it and hear the shriek of Herrmann’s string section. Instead, the filmmakers play it safe, preventing us from feeling hemmed in. No roller coaster drama for us.
There’s also the disturbing lack of memorable symbols and themes. Neeson ostensibly plays a botanist (and something more), the main plot involves a discovery in that field, and there is a plot device made of scientific plant names, but never is there any correlation drawn between the plot and bigger ideas. Hitchcock used occasionally anonymous McGuffins to drive his movies, but most of the time there was some larger idea at play that you couldn’t easily miss. ‘North by Northwest’ springs off the notion of a nonexistent spy, but ties this into its heroes reaction to being confused with a man who doesn’t exist. This forces the protagonist into fulfilling the role. It says something about the clandestine games governments play and how innocent people can get snagged in them. Not grand, perhaps, but clear. ‘Unknown’s ideas are too confused to have such focus or effect. The filmmakers jump from locale to locale without anointing their doors with emotion. I like to quote Kubrick’s notion of film as music, and he’s vindicated once again by this film’s unmusical construction. The screenwriters seem reluctant to repeat cinematic melodies, opting instead to pack in more clichés, and those images that repeat lack cathartic transformation.
There are better ways to use one’s time. Go watch some Hitchcock; leave this one for the soon-to-be-disappointed birds.