Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Liam Nesia

Unknown 2011
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Now playing
at UK cinemas.

Warning! Spoilers? Oh yes, big ones. Not really spoilers as such if you’ve seen the trailer because... well, you’ll see. If you really want to know nothing more than you can already figure out from the trailer then stay away from reading any of this review.

Hmmm... I remember watching the trailer for this movie at the cinema and as the first thought popped into my head “Woah... they’ve done another Taken or, at the very least, a new Taken rip-off”... the rest of the trailer played out and that rather hopeful thought process had unfortunately changed to... “Blimey, that’s an old plot they’re digging up again. Have people really never seen this hook before?” Still, regardless of the old 1940s-nobody-remembers-who-I-am-not-even-my-wife plot line, it did still look like it was trying to mine the same vein of “thrillcium” that Taken had opened up and, since I’d really liked that movie... there was no way I was wanting to miss this movie at the cinema.

Besides, I’d already seen Rango earlier that day and was singularly unimpressed... so I figured a big, shouty-jumpy-punchy action movie with lots of pulse-pounding percussion effects could not even begin to disappoint me... how wrong I was.

Unknown, it turns out, is a classic case of a movie trailer giving you all the answers you need to work out, within the first few minutes of the film, that movie’s final solution. You know, from the trailer, that there’s a twist... the trailer shows you Liam Neeson having an accident, not remembering stuff and then, when he does remember who he is, his wife doesn’t recognise him and he has been replaced by another man. That much is simple and very much like those old black and white movies from the 40s that I used to watch as a growing lad.

They really shouldn’t have given this much away because, frankly, the movie already has a transparent plot leading to one inevitable conclusion, which I will reveal in just a minute (you have been warned). Letting you know all the set up in the trailer before it’s even played out in the movie quite easily leads you to deduce the correct conclusions just from the way the characters behave (more pertinently, what they don’t say to each other that a normal couple might) and the way their body language works... something I’m sure the actors were very careful about, trying to pull the wool over the audiences eyes while at the same time trying to stay true to their character’s backstory... something that can’t be that easy to do without actually lying to the audience (well at least they can’t be accused of that).

But because you “know the score” you really do know what’s going on before even the opening credits are finished and the accident which sets up the film has even taken place. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s films The Village and The Sixth Sense, this is a movie which really wears it’s ending on its sleeve.

Okay, here we go then. Car crash. Neesons mind wiped but then he remembers he’s Dr. Martin Harris who’s about to give an important lecture on... oh, I don’t remember, something scientific. But his wife doesn’t remember him and she’s already got another replacement Dr. Martin Harris with her to deliver the all important lecture... not to mention that Neeson’s website has photos of this other guy and there are, wait for it, family photos. Conspiracy signals right here, yeah? They even have family photos. And most of this is information you can get easily enough by just watching the trailer - marketing dilemma... unfortunately you can’t sell the hook because the hook doesn’t hold up under scrutiny for longer than 5 minutes without giving itself away... but without trailering your hook then you don’t have anything unique to say about your movie other than “Ooh. You all went to see Taken and The Bourne Identity. We’d like similar amounts of money chucked at us too please. Come see our wannabe!”... so unfortunately... you have to trailer your flimsy hook!

And to ram the obvious final solution down your throats just that little bit harder, the “flashbacks” are treated with some very dreamlike effects to them. Seriously, this goes beyond the normal semiotics of cinema with the treatment of the film stock in these sections. Now, okay, this could be a stylistic flourish of the director but, frankly, my suspicions have already been more than aroused by the trailer. And when I say my suspicions have been aroused I mean the trailer is dancing naked around me talking dirty and tickling me under the chin aroused. I know these aren’t normal flashbacks we’ve got here, they’re fake memories and, even in the unlikely instance that they had indeed been flashbacks... then why the heck is Mr. Liam-I’m-a-simple-married-doctor-giving-a-lecture-here-folks-Neeson so good at keeping the enemy at bay with his jumpy, shouty, fighty stuff and his stunty-drivey-crashy stuff? Give me a break.

Okay... so I hope by now anyone still reading this will have cracked the so-called spoiler for this movie but, just in case you havent, I’ll spell it out for you. Yes, Liam Neeson is a bad guy assassin on a mission with his “wife” under cover. Yes the accident has wiped his memory and he’s taken on the fake memories of his own cover story and yes, the film then takes a terrible turn for the worse because once Liam figures out who he is and why he’s there, he then tries to stop it taking place. What? Honestly, half an hour with Diane Kruger warding off danger (so good in Inglourious Basterds but, like Neeson, wasted here) and he’s ready to switch sides and do the right thing? Why? What epiphany happened here that the audience wasn’t privy too? Talk about writing yourself into a corner and then running through the wet paint quickly in the hopes that nobody will notice your clumsy, writerly footprints.

Ok... let’s try to focus on anything good here. Ok... Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger and Frank Langella are all stand out here, although Langella’s a little bit over the top, if truth be told. But the one who really comes out on top here is... Bruno Ganz! Yep, that’s right. You read correctly. They somehow managed to convince the great German actor Bruno Ganz to be in this poor-man’s Bourne rip-off. And, once I’d gotten over the shock of how old he’s looking now (was half expecting that angel from Wings of Desire and its sequel to fall to earth on screen again, clutching his suit of armour) I realised that he is the only character I can respect in this mess of a movie. A seriously well-written and intelligent, considered performance from Ganz here and almost (almost) worth the price of the ticket... if only he’d had more screen time.

And that’s about it, I think, for both the good stuff and the bad stuff when it comes to this particular movie. Unknown is an okayish, no brainer actioner which will probably leave you fairly unsatisfied because it’s so easy to figure out what’s going on so quickly in the movie. A third rate version of The Bourne Identity... which makes it a second rate Salt in my book! If you like seeing the slow transformation of solid actor Neeson into Mr. Mature Action Hero... then you’d be better off staying away from this one and waiting until they’ve got Taken 2 in the can. And, yes, that movie is already in pre-production and awaiting shooting. Lotsa shooting is my guess ;-)