Neeson, Kruger electrify in "Unknown"

Saturday, February 26th, 2011 at 2:39 PM
Neeson, Kruger electrify in Unknown by Ben Speggen
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“Unknown” isn’t your “Love Actually” Liam Neeson. Sure. That’s easy enough to tell.

But the previews for the Jaume Collet-Serra-directed film might initially have audiences believing we’re seeing Neeson reprised in his “Taken” role, a role that made him a household name in the action world as he set out as the man-on-a-mission type to rescue his daughter from sex-trafficking kidnappers.

On the surface, audiences might easily draw connections between the films: same actor (Neeson), similar location (Europe/Eastern Europe), thriller-based theme (go-get-‘em action flick with a relentless affinity for fist-clenching scenes), and so on. But one thing clearly distinguishes the two films: Neeson’s delivery.

 

In "Unknown," which hit U.S. theaters February 18, Neeson fleshes out his new I’m-coming-after-you-with-nothing-to-lose character and gives more life to the role than simply giving the old “you took something I want and I’m taking it back” attitude. Rather than remaining as one-dimensional—but undeniably cool—as he did in “Taken,” where Neeson kicks down doors, kicks in faces, and kicks his way to success without missing a beat, Neeson gives Harris an awkwardness that makes him seem vulnerable and human.

The plot takes off after Harris’s briefcase is mistakenly left on a luggage cart at the airport. Harris sets out to retrieve it but instead finds himself victim to a car crash as his taxicab plunges into a river. The accident leaves him in a coma for four days in an unfamiliar hospital in an unfamiliar city.

As he awakens, Harris attempts to resume his life only to find that no one around him, including his wife, will acknowledge him as Martin Harris.

Harris’s wife, Liz (the beautiful but flat January Jones) denies knowing him and even points out that her husband, Martin Harris (enter a genuine but seemingly sinister Aidan Quinn), has been with her all along. This sends Neeson’s Harris back to the hospital, trying to prove he’s not insane and that he is indeed who claims to be: Martin Harris.

The film hits stride and settles into place with the reintroduction of Gina, the taxicab driver who pulled Harris to safety but then fled the scene immediately after. Diane Kruger brings more to the role of the trusty-but-out-of-place sidekick as she delivers the most authentic and endearing performance in the film. She seems genuinely frightened during a high-speed car chase (don’t worry: it’ll make sense later in the film why a doctor of biology can easily out drive a trained-assassin) and sincerely rattled afterwards when she and Harris try to make sense of why they’re being chased.

Together in “Unknown,” Gina and Harris are fighting to live and more importantly are fighting to live as themselves (it’s probably fitting that Gina’s an illegal immigrant who can’t be recognized as herself as Harris fights to prove he is himself). And Neeson and Kruger fight well through a few abrupt plot shifts and some choppy, unnatural lines.

Sure certain lines, like, “Do you know what it feels like to become insane? It’s a war between being told who you are and knowing who you are… Which do you think wins?” and, “I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you…” fall awkwardly out of Harris’s mouth. But the film’s direction and acting capture its intensity that the film keeps at its forefront and keeps us from leaning back in our seats: who is Martin Harris? And this make up for the occasionally poor writing.

While “Unknown” is unlikely to draw an Oscar buzz for Neeson and crew, it’s not a film that’s trying to do that. Instead, it’s a nice change of pace from the heavier winter likes of “True Grit,” “Black Swan,” and so on in the sense that it gets back down to thriller basics: is anything truly as it seems?

And if you’re still scared about shelling out the $8 or so for something you think you may have already seem Neeson do, “Unknown” is worth it since it does what “Taken” didn’t: it creates multiple possibilities for the audience to guess who the bad guys truly are.

With “Taken,” we knew who Neeson was after and it was enjoyable yet simple. With “Unknown,” we have no idea who’s after Neeson and whom he’s after until the very end of the movie, which is more than enough to keep audiences plugged into Neeson’s strong current that electrifies a man struggling to know himself and prove himself if only to keep from going insane.    

Besides, if you’re still looking for a total role change for Neeson, I hear he’s got a cameo in the upcoming summer release “Hangover Part II” that guarantees he won’t be chasing or being chased by anyone.

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