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Non-Review Review: Unknown

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Unknown is not, despite what it may want you to believe, anything to do with Taken. I have a sense that audiences catching the film without that pre-existing expectation might enjoy it more than others, but I can’t help but feel the movie suffers by comparison to the earlier film in the “Liam Neeson as badass action hero” subgenre.

Taken for a ride?

Note: By its very nature, this review will involve the very slightest of spoilers. I will literally be discussing the first twenty or so minutes of the film, and I doubt it’s any more than you could discern from the trailers, but I figure it’s worth flagging with the spoiler-conscious out there.

The advertisements for Unknown have been pushing the film as something of a spiritual successor to the surprise hit Taken – the tagline of the film is, after all, take back your life” and the poster features Neeson standing in a very familiar pose. One might be forgiven for assuming, on seeing the posters for the movie, that Unknown simply takes the basic framework of Taken and swaps the background city from Paris to Berlin, for the sake of variety. Though I can understand why the publicity campaign would push this angle (Taken was, after all, a phenomenal and unexpected hit), but I can’t help be feel it does the film a disservice.

You might argue that any person going into a movie trusting what they read on posters ultimately deserves what they end up getting, and I can see your point. However, the film itself also seems to push the similarities between itself and the earlier film. There’s an important scene early on where Neeson’s character suspects his identity has been stolen, and remarks that the perpetrators have taken everything from me.” Later on, he refers to an assassination attempt with the rather convenient euphemism, “they came to take me.” The movie hints at a women in peril and in a situation without consent, much like Neeson’s daughter in the earlier film. Neeson himself remarks on his “honeymoon in Paris”, perhaps a reference to the way the film so skilfully established him as an action lead.

Don't be taken in...

Unknown is, essentially, the story of an American in Berlin who has the bad fortune to end up in a coma while trying to recover his forgotten bag from the airport. When he wakes up four days later, he finds that his identity has been stolen and that his own beloved wife (of five years) doesn’t recognise him. In fact, he’s been replaced. There’s another man wandering around Berlin with his name and identification. How can our hero prove that he is who he says he is? Is this just a delusion, the result of the coma? Is he out of his mind?

It’s a very silly premise, to be honest. There was an episode of the show Family Guy a few years ago, called Back in the Woods. The plot of the episode had our lead character, Peter, misplace his wallet – only for James Woods to find it. Using the identification from the wallet, Woods is able to convince the world that he is Peter, and the law has no recourse. Woods is able to completely usurp Peter, moving into his own house and his own bed – and nobody is able to stop him, because he has Peter’s identification and can, therefore, prove he’s Peter in the eyes of the law. It’s a ridiculously stupid plot, and one which the show can only pull off because it’s a surrealist comedy. However, Unknown uses virtually the same plot set-up, but plays it entirely straight. It’s as awkward as you might imagine.

Everything's upside down...

Of course, the movie does eventually offer an explanation for all this, and I suspect that the plot revelations will divide viewers on the film. Some will be able to just roll with whatever crazy reason is thrown out there, but others will call it awkward and hackneyed. Being honest, I fall somewhere in between. It’s tough to discuss the film without spoiling it, so I won’t go into it in too much depth.

Anyway, the movie does have a fascinating underlying theme – this idea that our lives are so remote and isolated that characters can literally just step in and out of them. The “faux Liam Neeson” is able to step into the schedule planned for the real character, because nobody in Berlin has actually met him before, despite knowing him for years. Thanks to the internet, it’s possible to forge deep interpersonal relationships without ever seeing the person’s face. So this imposter is able to just step into friendships with hugely influential people, and they have no idea that he isn’t who he says he is. It’s a clever little comment about how withdrawn we all are in this Facebook age – despite the increased connectivity, the number of people we actually know has been greatly reduced.

His fate is unknown...

On the other hand, this sort of idea leaves the viewer scratching their head. All of a sudden, this “Neeson lite” has his picture in all the places where Liam Neeson’s should have been, including web pages and programmes for a big bio-tech conference. Surely somebody printed up some materials at some point (leaflets, pamphlets, schedules) that would have included a photograph of the vitally important guest? Surely somebody checked his webpage to see what he looked at before he arrived, and before it was changed? Earlier on, Neeson is unable to ring his wife and let her know where he is because he can’t get signal in the middle of Berlin. Really? However, to ask such questions is ultimately pointless, the movie doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if it wasn’t so goddamn slow. A big part of Taken’s charm was that if was efficient and effective – it didn’t use three lines of exposition where one would do, it didn’t feature too many extraneous characters, it didn’t develop a bad guy for Neeson to square off against. Instead, Unknown spends quite a while establishing mood – at times it looks like the movie is attempting to become a pseudo-serious drama on identity theft, seemingly ignoring the simple fact that the plot is pants. The movie is two-hours long, and we’re nearly an hour in by the time that the first action sequence really kicks off. It’s simply too long, and too padded. We don’t need everything in the film – we could do without Diane Kruger’s taxi driver, for example.

Neeson needs somebody...

How muddled the film is becomes apparent at the climax, when it decides to rather randomly and arbitrarily dispose of one of the key lead characters (one who has driven the film) as almost a ridiculous after-thought. Kinda like the writer realised that there was a still a wheel spinning and it needed to stop – which is a shame, because that character carries a lot of emotional baggage it would have been nice to see handled, especially when the movie finally allows Neeson to confront his doppelgänger.

That said, the action sequences are competent. There’s a clear attempt by the film to “theme” itself around Berlin in the same way that Taken worked with Paris. There’s nothing too overt, but there’s an attempt to work in the more obvious associations with the city. In place of car chases and barges on the Seine, there’s a near-miss with a tram and a spill from a beer truck. Instead of the ethnic ghettos of Paris, when visit the techno nightclubs of Berlin (with, it must be conceded, very effective use of the song Blue Monday). Still, the action never feels as “real” as it did in the earlier film, nor nearly as visceral. There are, I concede, some nice moments. In particular, a stalking sequence at an art gallery is effectively shot and wonderfully atmospheric. If only the rest of the movie could match it.

There are known knowns and unknown knowns...

There’s also a sense that the movie is winking at the camera. Taken prided itself on its earnestness. It never tried to convince you that it was a deep drama about a father looking for a daughter, but it never descended into farce and it never feigned self-awareness. Unknown, on the other hand, seems very self-conscious. There’s a genuine sense that the movie is laughing at itself, which doesn’t especially suit the mood that it’s trying to create. “We forgot we were Nazis,” a German character played by Bruno Ganz remarks, probably as he’s trying to forget that he ever played Hitler, so he can avoid being typecast.

There’s a shot of Liam Neeson in disguise that very clearly resembles his appearance as Hannibal in The A-Team. There’s something just a bit cheeky about casting Aidan Quinn as the replacement Liam Neeson, given that the two are fairly distinguished Irish actors who have worked together before (both courting Julia Roberts in Michael Collins). All of these seem to be sly winks to the camera in a movie which fluctuates in tone between dead serious and dead silly.

Ultimately, the movie is too long and inconsistent for its own good. It has its own identity crisis. Is it a standard action movie, with a cheesy self-awareness? Is it a character study that just features some action? Is it entirely serious, or does it recognise how ridiculous its core concept is? It’s not sophisticated enough to maintain viewer interest during the long set-up sequences, and it features too many silly plot twists to be taken seriously as a character-driven thriller. It has some good ideas, but it lacks the skilful execution necessary to follow through on them.

I don’t normally score my reviews, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival does give an “audience award” and asks the audience to rate the film out of four. In the interest of full and frank disclosure, my score is: 2.

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