Blu-Ray Review: Liam Neeson Kicks Butt, Takes Names in ‘Unknown’

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CHICAGO – For audiences seeking a casually entertaining thriller that doesn’t require a great deal of thought, “Unknown” amounts to an enjoyable couple of hours. Skeptics are advised to steer clear. Though the mind-scrambling plot includes initial shades of “Twilight Zone” intrigue, it’s really just an excuse for Liam Neeson to kick even more butt than he did in 2008’s surprise box office hit, “Taken.”

The picture works solely because Neeson has an old-fashioned everyman quality that makes viewers want to follow him anywhere, even over the cliff of implausibility. Many critics bashed the film for its far-fetched final act, which morphs the plot into an entirely different genre. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but the rest of the film is so cheerfully ludicrous that I was willing to accept it (albeit with a bemused expression). Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0

What’s most enticing about Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s script (based on the novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert) is its subversion of the usual amnesia thriller formula. Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, a man whose name has the same number of syllables as Dr. Richard Kimble. In the film’s opening title sequence, Dr. Harris is headed to a biotechnology conference in Berlin while accompanied by his wife (January Jones). A forgotten briefcase causes Harris to impulsively head back to the airport while leaving his wife stranded at the hotel, uninformed of his whereabouts. Thanks to the script’s convenient contrivances, the cab Harris chooses has no cell phone reception, thus preventing him from making the call that would solve all his problems. To make matters worse, the cab sails over a bridge and into the icy water, thrusting the unlucky doctor into a four-day coma. After awakening in the hospital, Harris flees to reconnect with his wife at the hotel, though his lack of identification causes a few security snags. Yet the confusion really begins once Mrs. Harris turns to face her husband and fails to recognize him. She then turns to another man (Aidan Quinn), who wears a nametag identifying him as “Dr. Martin Harris.” Cue “Twilight Zone” music.

Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger star in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown.
Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger star in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown.
Photo credit: Warner Home Entertainment

If the setup is pure Hitchcock, the payoff verges closer to James Bond territory. As Harris desperately tries to solve the mystery of his disappearing identity, he engages in the usual assortment of car chases, fistfights and near-death escapes. There’s even a moment where a particularly physical brawl causes Neeson and his attacker to crash through the plywood wall of an apartment room, as Flavio Martínez Labiano’s fluid camera follows them every step of the way. At times, the film nearly plays like a send-up of Hollywood extravagance, with outbursts of violence so over-the-top that they inspire a giggle and a wince. Diane Kruger exudes her usual radiance as a cab driver with the beauty of a Bond girl and the driving skills of an expert stunt driver. She’s among the many superb character actors featured in the supporting cast that bolster the credibility of their respective scenes. The great Bruno Ganz (best known as Hitler in “Downfall”) goes toe-to-toe with Frank Langella in an ominous sequence of mounting dread.

Unknown was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 21, 2011.
Unknown was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 21, 2011.
Photo credit: Warner Home Entertainment

Surely the largest mystery lying at the heart of “Unknown” is why January Jones continues to have a film career. There’s a distinct difference between icy characterizations and blank-faced coasting. Unfortunately, Jones has mastered the latter. Her performance in “Unknown” is so awful that it renders her scenes borderline unwatchable. The biggest howler occurs late in the picture (spoiler alert!) when Jones attempts to disable a ticking bomb while her face exudes little more than mild irritation. And yet the one-dimensional model has been repeatedly cast alongside high-class ensembles in everything from Richard Curtis’s “Pirate Radio” to Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class.” The instant “Mad Men” completes its run, expect Jones’ current identity as an A-list actress to fade into oblivion.
“Unknown’ is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.4:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, French and Spanish audio tracks and includes a DVD and digital copy of the film. The only special features offered on this disc are the sort of paltry featurettes usually reserved for minimalist DVD releases. Even though both mini-docs are four minutes apiece, they share much of the same footage. Neeson recalls an instance of memory loss from his adolescent years that he drew upon for inspiration, while Quinn laughs at staging epic fight scenes with his old buddy, despite the fact that they’re well into their ’50s. Yet perhaps the soundbites guaranteed to linger longest in viewers’ minds are delivered by Jones, whose insights are inane even by these extras’ standards. She says that Mrs. Harris is an unusual female character because you can’t tell whether she’s good or bad. Apparently Jones has never heard of a femme fatale.

‘Unknown’ is released by Warner Home Entertainment and stars Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch and Karl Markovics. It was written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. It was released on June 21, 2011. It is rated PG-13. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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