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Tue February 22, 2011
Good little thriller.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time," "Cinema Classics," and "On the Marquee"
"Mr. Hopkins, after all, was an axiom of the Merchant-Ivory glory days, in addition to embodying Hannibal Lecter and Richard Nixon. Mr. Neeson, for his part, having played the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey and the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins and given voice to Aslan, the Messianic lion of Narnia, sits squarely at the top of his profession. What are actors of such prestige and pedigree doing in pictures like these?" A.O. Scott, NYT, "When good actor meets bad movie"
Neeson can be forgiven for Unknown, a taut thriller with twists good enough to surprise and characterization believable enough to overcome plot holes endemic to all high-octane thrillers. Granted he's again looking for a lost family member, as he did with his daughter in Taken and this time his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), but he is such a good actor of such strength that we believe him implicitly even when his sanity and truthfulness can be legitimately questioned. As Scott says in the above New York Times commentary, these great actors participate in at-best "B" movies at this time of year because they can, and they bring a gravity of commitment that supersedes weak material.
Presenting at a Berlin biotech conference, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is separated from his wife only to discover himself in a situation where he loses his identity and she denies him. Director Jaume Collet-Serra slowly distributes the information before we begin to understand the loss of identity and wife. With its Harrison Ford-Fugitive feel about the chases, at no early point was I sure what the biotech conference had to do with the assassination of an oil prince or Harris's role in the plot.
The theme of lost identity is neatly woven into the suspense. It may be I identify with the fear as a traveler who guards his passport with his life, but the film plays on the current techno-terror of identity theft be it at an airport or over the Internet. In any case, Neeson is believable as a man driven almost to madness by the thought that someone has taken his life along with his wife.
The introduction of a young cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), who saves Harris's life, adds a dimension of adventure that doesn't detract from the believability. An inspiration of casting is Bruno Ganz as Ernst Jurgen, a private investigator with a checkered past but a lifelong interest in the details that make a difference. Ganz, a German actor of substance for decades, brings energy to his role that leaps over others for powerful screen presence, albeit with almost over-the-top glee.
At a dead time of year, when Oscar winners dominate, this little thriller is welcome even if its theme scares the heck out of me.
John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5's It's Movie Time, Cinema Classics, and On the Marquee, which can be heard streaming at http://publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/ppr/index.shtml and on demand at http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wcbe/arts.artsmain Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com