4 March 2011


It's been noted that our action stars today are largely Serious Actors. Although you do occasionally get a modern Schwarzenegger or a Van Damme, it's far more common to see a Matt Damon. Someone who nicely crosses between both now and, contrary to common misconceptions, ever since he started in this business, is Liam Neeson.

In Unknown, Neeson is Martin Harris, a professor of biotechnology. Or is he? While attending a summit in Berlin, he's involved in a painful car accident, which leaves him slightly less certain. His confusion is only exacerbated by the fact that his wife Liz doesn't recognise him, and there is another Martin Harris in his place. So it's off around Berlin for the absent-minded professor, with shootouts and fisticuffs aplenty through his quest to recover his identity.

As mentioned, Neeson hasn't just started doing this recently, though Taken was the surprise hit that made him a bankable action star. Although he is arguably most famous for Schindler's List, he's continued to pepper his CV with roles in films like Darkman and Rob Roy. If you do only know Neeson from Schindler's List, it would be wrong to expect anything as serious. However, the film does have a supporting turn from Bruno Ganz, better known for playing Hitler in YouTube rants than for playing Hitler in Downfall, by which logic, you get to see Oskar Schindler pal up with Adolf Hitler.

But the benefit of Neeson's experience is that he goes for roles in which he seems to genuinely find depth of character- he is an actor of great prestige, and his presence alone can really elevate genre films. I'd say that he's good as an action star because he's acquired his skills over a very long career, but I can't be that guy. Reading the interviews he's done to promote Unknown, his reasons for taking this role are related to inhabiting the psychological state of a character who has lost his identity in the most traumatic way imaginable. He's a reliable talent, so once you've pay up and sit down in your cinema seat, you could be forgiven for only then realising the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

Granted, some might say that it's actually over-dressed, but whichever extreme you lean towards, that's problematic for me. The cast are good, not least because it's refreshing to see European actors like Diane Kruger and Sebastian Koch being cast in films like these, rather than accented Americans. Neeson's own American accent isn't exactly the best in the business, but you can see his dedication to the role in his portrayal. Anyway, the competent cast all play characters, and I'm not sure an action film like this works as a character-driven piece- the film is based around Martin Harris and Martin Harris only, and you're not even allowed to forget that when they throw in an arbitrary nasty plan for the eventual baddies of the piece, right before the big climax.

I say all this not because it's a bad film, but because it wasn't engaging enough to distract me from all of the stuff that it had borrowed from other films. It's nothing like the woeful I Am Number Four, not by any stretch, but the film it sounds most like is The Bourne Identity, and it completely conforms to any expectations related to that. Although it has shootouts and fisticuffs and car chases and other interesting stuff, but they all come from Bourne too- the influence of that trilogy on modern action cinema cannot be overstated. Because the regular action sequences are just so regular, there are things I couldn't overlook, and the first was the likeness to Bourne.

The second was the way that this is another film where Liam Neeson has a bone to pick with Europe. In Taken, he tortured every other person he could find in Paris in search of his daughter. Here, he's behaving himself enough that the film gets a 12A rating, but the xenophobia is still there. I know the film's based on a book set in Germany, written by a German author, but I still found it amusing that someone thought of Neeson's name after Taken made a hit out of an (alleged) American going to Europe and causing mayhem.

Unknown would be kind of forgettable- and that pun cannot be avoided, intended or not- but it's bolstered by the presence of Liam Neeson, and some smart casting that doesn't favour whichever US TV actors are waiting around for their next season to start. It's a functional action drama, but the action's a little too derivative to be really exciting and the drama is just a bit predictable after enough time. If nothing else, it keeps Neeson in shape for the upcoming Taken 2, which promises more Euro-phobic hi-jinks, but in the meantime, this is a handy and enjoyable stop-gap.

Unknown is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Unknown, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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