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Discovering 'Unknown' worthwhile

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Unknown"

Ap Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures
Ap Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Liam Neeson, left, and January Jones are shown in a scene from "Unknown."

Warner Bros. Pictures

1 hour, 53 minutes

Liam Neeson's last big hit was a movie called "Taken," which most people loved, but I found to be grim and poorly executed. As that film was a huge hit, it's no surprise that the advertising department has tried to make the promotional material of Neeson's latest film, "Unknown," reminiscent of "Taken." This is probably part of the reason "Unknown" did so well this weekend, but it very nearly kept me from going to see it at all.

But, when I looked at my options, it was either the Biebster, "Gnomeo and Juliet," some disposable junk from Adam Sandler, or the teeny-bopper alien movie produced by Michael Bay. At the very least, "Unknown" has Liam Neeson in it. So, I talked my wife into going out, we got a babysitter, and we headed for the theater, me fully expecting to hear, "this is what you made me give up my evening with the kids for?!"

Surprise, surprise, "Unknown" is a taut, well-constructed, and very entertaining thriller. And nothing at all like "Taken."

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a respected physician who, along with his beautiful wife, Liz, played well by January Jones, is on his way to attend a genetics summit in Berlin. When Harris accidentally leaves his briefcase at the airport, it sets off a chain of events that change the doctor's life unalterably. Leaving Liz at the hotel to check in, Martin catches a cab to race back to the airport to retrieve his property. Unfortunately, a freak accident on the highway leaves our hero in a coma, which he awakens from three days later.

Somewhat confused and disoriented, Dr. Harris manages to talk his way out of the hospital and rushes back to the hotel and the conference, certain that his wife will have been sick with worry. What he finds instead is a new Dr. Martin Harris in his place, and a wife who seems not to recognize him. Back in the hospital, Martin struggles to put the pieces together. Is he crazy or is someone playing a sick joke? Who is the man in his place? Why is Liz behaving so strangely? And worst of all, why is someone trying to kill him?

"Unknown" has all the hallmarks of a great mystery thriller in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. This may seem like a lofty comparison to make, but people forget that, for all his skill and fame, Hitchcock was a B-movie maker. He made thrillers and horror movies and told ghost stories on TV -- it's just that he did it better than anyone else, which is why we remember him. His best tack was to take a regular guy and throw him in a situation way over his head, where, all of a sudden, nothing made sense -- black was white, up was down. It's great fun, and in the hands of a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant, it made for incredibly entertaining cinema.

Neeson isn't quite of the calibre of those greats, but he's very good and plays the confusion and panic of Dr. Harris masterfully. The rest of the cast, including Jones, Aidan Quinn, Diane Kruger, and a small role by Frank Langella, are all more than up to the task and ensure that "Unknown" remains solid throughout. A riveting, action-packed thriller with a satisfying twist of an ending, "Unknown" is the perfect antidote for the late winter doldrums.

I'd like to comment at this point on the rating. I've noticed lately that I've been railing a lot about the MPAA and its either corrupt or irreparably damaged system of rating movies. Nearly everything I've seen this year has either been rated too leniently due to a lack of foul language ("Season of the Witch" and "The Rite," to name two) or too harshly for exactly the opposite reason ("The King's Speech. C'mon. R? Really?)

Looking back to my intro, "Taken" was so disturbingly misrated that I spent three-fourths of my review griping about it. "Unknown" on the other hand, is finally a film I can say is appropriately rated PG-13. There's a modicum of language, a few relatively mild sexual situations, and some violence, but nothing that teens couldn't handle.

I think what made me take notice was the fact that, especially in light of the success of "Taken," the filmmakers could have shoehorned quite a bit more objectionable material into the film and kept that PG-13 rating, but they didn't. I applaud them.

"Unknown" succeeds, not because of a body count or gratuitous sex, but because its got an engaging, exciting plot that keeps the audience engaged from start to finish. Far from being unknown, it's pretty obvious what makes this movie a success.

Grade: B+

"Unknown" is rated PG-13 for some violence and language, and brief sexuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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