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Critical Mass: 'Unknown'

February 18, 2011 | 10:44 am

Liam Neeson is doing the Hitchcockian thing in his latest thriller, "Unknown," in which the actor plays biotechnology scientist Martin Harris. While attending a conference in Berlin, he gets separated from his wife, knocked unconscious in a car accident and awakes to find out his wife is married to the "real" Martin Harris. Naturally, complications ensue.

The studio, Warner Bros., is no doubt hoping this action thriller will recapture the box-office magic of "Taken" from 2009, another Euro-centric thriller featuring a ticked-off Neeson mopping the floor with a bunch of shadowy bad guys. But "Unknown" has the emphasis on thriller and less on action. Will lightning strike twice?

The Times' Kenneth Turan is a big fan. He calls it "son of 'Taken' " and says it's "a better film than 'Taken' ever was." What's the secret? Turan says it's the cast, which includes January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella. "They ... were likely attracted by the shrewd nature of the intriguing plot twists that eventually fill us in on what's going on," Turan writes.

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips is also a big fan, and he even goes so far as to suggest that Neeson can outdo everyman action star Harrison Ford on his own turf. "More subtly than Harrison Ford, Neeson excels at the slow fuse snaking its way to explosive revenge," he writes. And though he finds some faults with the movie (it was produced by Joel Silver, after all), Phillips gives it high marks anyway: "On its own Joel Silver terms, 'Unknown' is engaging, and better directed than you'd expect coming from director Jaume Collet-Serra ('House of Wax,' 'Orphan')."

Associated Press critic Christy Lemire, who's also the new co-host of "Ebert Presents At the Movies," also enjoyed it, giving full credit to Neeson, whose "always-intelligent screen presence, his nuance and gravitas, help elevate 'Unknown' beyond its preposterous elements."

But lest you think "Unknown" is the sleeper masterpiece of the year, be warned that most critics aren't as enthralled with Neeson's buttkickery as some. Village Voice reviewer Nick Schager lays his dislike of the film at the feet of costar January Jones. "Too bad, then, that [the film's] central mystery hinges on an early reaction shot from Jones that the 'Mad Men' beauty flubs completely, thus sabotaging the subsequent hour and a half of suspenseful misdirections and red herrings aimed at keeping questions about Harris’s muddled reality up in the air."

Famous New York Observer grump Rex Reed also hated "Unknown," perhaps because he allowed himself to care for the film's first hour, then the second half left him feeling shamed and humiliated. " 'Unknown' is a bad movie that starts out as a good movie, then plunges steadily downhill in a pile of head-scratching mush," he says. He also describes the script as having so many holes it "looks like a New York street after a snowplow." 

And Roger Ebert seemed so bored by the film that he spent part of the running time attempting to write another entry in his ongoing project "Ebert's Little Movie Glossary": "Is there a term for the Paradox of Intended Accidental Consequences? That's when a movie shows something that must be an accident, and it turns out to be part of a plan." At least he found something productive to do.

So with critics nearly evenly divided, what's one to make of "Unknown"? Chances are, with those fond memories of "Taken" floating in their brain pans (and heavy rotation on HBO), moviegoers will probably give Neeson another chance.

-- Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Liam Neeson in "Unknown." Credit: Warner Bros.

Comments () | Archives (4)

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The movie has a very interesting premise. And Liam Neeson plays these types of characters very well. I am not sure yet if I will see it in the theater, but its definitely one that I would rent in the future. Thanks for the well-rounded review!

The reference to Hitchcock is apt, certainly January Jones represents the icy blond favored by the master. However, there is a quote by Hitchcock that applies here. He called some films "refrigerator" movies, meaning you see the film and then later, when you go to the refrigerator for a beer, you go, "Wait a second, why didn't he just....?" The movie was okay, story had more holes than a collander, but Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger keep our interests up. I thought for sure she was going to have a more interesting background than a refugee artist, given her action skills when her taxi goes in the drink as well as her driving skills. She goes toe to toe with all the supposed hitmen. The weakest scene for me was Neeson's first reunion with his wife which played out like it, too, was underwater. The slow editing really undercut the tension of that moment.

With all due respect to Roger Ebert, he apparently wasn't following the plot too closely, since the accident was, in fact, an accident. It wasn't part of the scheme within the movie, but was instead the catalyst for the confusion Neeson's character felt throughout the film. It is impossible to explain further here without revealing plot spoilers, but there was no "paradox". It was simply an accident.

But yes, Jones is really, really out of her depth as an actress in this film.

January Jones' reaction shot was not "flubbed." It was perfect, fit her character perfectly. She's a good actress, playing a good actress.

Sorry the Village Voice was expecting some kind of Kabuki acting, so the critic could feel smart and not stupid when he didn't figure out the twist. It must hurt to watch (not create) movies for a living, and find out you aren't as smart as you think you are.


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