Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unknown (2011) – Review

Unknown is a lot of fun. While the plot may seem somewhat implausible (as many have stated), it is a thriller with twists and turns designed to entertain, so the story is merely the frame in which to accomplish this goal – and it does. The film is very entertaining, both stemming from the action set pieces and the unraveling mystery, as well as fine performances from the cast (especially lead Liam Neeson and German standouts Diane Kruger and Bruno Ganz). Director Jaume Collet-Serra is able to take full advantage of his locations, in this case being Berlin in winter. The cold and dark nature of the setting mixes well with the narrative for the main character Dr. Martin Harris, a man who is in a sense abandoned. Collet-Serra does do a good job grounding the film in reality, which benefits the narrative greatly as the resolution of the mystery feels a bit manufacture and inorganic (though, I enjoyed the twist quite a bit). However, this feeling (which for some viewers degrades the film) is the result of Collet-Serra leaving only subtle clues, and not the typically glaring (hey look at me) tips in other films, nor did he just pull the revelation out of left field – the clues are there for the observant viewer. While the main character, a man put upon by society and his predicament who is forced to prove himself, is nothing new to Hollywood film, the relationship between Harris (Neeson) and Gina (Kruger) felt fresh – mostly because there was not some forced sexual or love relationship between them. Their working friendship seemed genuine and was really the strongest part of the film, further grounding it, amidst the spies, espionage, action scenes, betrayal, and so. Collet-Serra also infuses the film with a lot of tension, often dragging out moments of panic to engage the audiences’ nerves. It makes the film all the more enjoyable.  However, a knock against the film (and really one against a growing number of Hollywood films it seems) is that the overall plot and idea of the film appeared on the outside at least to be unoriginal (also due to Neeson starring). For viewers that have seen Roman Polanski’s Frantic, part of the film felt a lot like that film, while the other part felt a lot like the more resent Taken (which also starred Neeson). However, the similarities are really only on the surface – the themes of those pieces play into this, but the characters and plot are much different. But, seeing Neeson in an action-thriller immediately takes some viewers to Taken as a comparison (which really is about as good as this – and with a just as implausible plot). Going back to Frantic, Kruger does look a bit like Emmanuelle Seigner and played sort of a similar role (but different too) and the scene in Gina’s apartment also had some noteworthy similarities to a scene from Frantic in Michelle’s apartment. These similarities (or references or homages) again do not detract from this film’s narrative, but do evoke a distracting comparison (for some). Despite this, Unknown is a good action-thriller, which will certainly be enjoyed for fans of the genre.

Technical and acting achievements: Jaume Collet-Serra directs his most ambitious and in my opinion best feature film with Unknown. Coming from a horror background gave him a strong command of the thriller aspect of the film, making it all the better especially in a genre that is often plagued by an overabundance of action and not enough real tension. The score by John Ottman and Alexander Rudd is fitting and emphasizing the tension well, making many a viewer uneasy. Flavio Martinez Labiano’s cinematography is also good, bringing the cold feeling from the location to the visuals – creating the sense of being lost. However, the standout among the technical work is that of production designer Richard Bridgland. His sets are interesting making for impressive visual composition as well as playing off the audience’s visceral experience of the film. I particularly liked his set for the blown-out hotel. The film features good work from its cast. Sebastian Koch did not really have that much to do, but is good in his scenes. Frank Langella, Aidan Quinn and January Jones also deliver strong performances without much character work to do. Bruno Ganz is fantastic and steals all his scenes. Diane Kruger is very good as well – mixing vulnerability with toughness, while not feeling like just another Hollywood romantic interest, but rather a full character. Liam Neeson makes for a good action star. He is tough and stoic, while being able to carry the dramatic work well.

Unknown may seem like just another typical action-thriller similar to others you have seen, but it is much more – feeling original and being very entertaining (and having a compelling twist, that I for once did not figure out before it was revealed, but looking back there certainly were signs). 7/10

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