Liam Neeson in Unknown (Warner Bros.)
OK, so here comes another one. Unknown is a film that to review properly, in my estimation, requires a few disclaimers:
1) SPOILER ALERT. I feel it’s important to get this one out of the way as soon as possible. I try to avoid it as much as I can but on occasion there will be a film that will leave you with little to no choice in the matter. I haven’t compelled to spill as much of the beans to make my point since I saw Orphan.
2) This is a hazardous film for me to review as a filmmaker. We are all guilty of armchair direction. Meaning we sit there and debate how we might’ve handled shots or the story. Part of my delay in writing this was to get past all the “I would’ve changed that” moments. I think it’s true in any form of criticism. Most notably food, I hate when a critic on a food shows alters the dish so greatly as to change it. Then it’s totally different and you’re not judging what’s on the plate. There are plenty of issues with “what is on the plate” in this story so I’ll leave it at that.
Without much further ado, Unknown.
This is another in a long line of films to have a pretty big twist due to either the fallibility of its protagonists memory or perception of reality. Unlike, say Shutter Island, the film doesn’t hinge entirely on the twist but the twist illuminates other issues.
The twist that Liam Neeson’s character is an assassin who after an accident has started to believe his cover story is his reality. In and of itself that’s a pretty darn good premise, however, in bringing that to fore there are many issues. Now one case of I wish that I will employ in this review is that while the coil is wound tightly you’re not necessarily expecting the criminal underworld to play into it and it’s a more effective story there.
The problem with the execution of the concept is that once the cat is out of the bag there is ample time for you to think back and realize how inconceivably unbelievable some of this film is.
Example: Neeson’s would-be wife, and actual assassin, is dumb enough to let his bag get lost which sets up the inciting incident. If there are crucial documents and information in their luggage why not handle it whenever possible? Secondly, the doctor immediately assumes that he is confused and misremembering things rather than coming to that conclusion in a reasonable amount of time. Memory and the functions of the brain are still so mysterious such that it’s difficult to believe that someone’s adverse reaction to trauma can be that easily guessed.
Then there’s this lovely little cliché: everyone Neeson runs into, practically, is in some way involved in this plot and trying to stifle his paranoid rantings. He happens across more people by chance who are involved than those who are not and it’s annoying and hard to swallow.
As a viewer I am one who tends to suspend disbelief rather easily so bear this in mind before I describe the next “I just didn’t buy it” moment. When Neeson is knocked out of the equation he is quickly replaced by his back-up. The problem here is that he is supposedly a noted scientist and no one notices his photo changing on a website, no one has ever seen this man just talked to him and over the course of a single year he’s developed a big reputation as a botanist.
It’s all a bit much. Neeson for the most part does a fine job in this film. He does manage to stick with his American persona without too many chinks in the armor but he’s also not given a great deal to work with. He said “I am Doctor Martin Harris” so many times it was a punchline amongst viewers both during and after the screening.
The bottom line is this: too many films are overly concerned with “fooling the audience” because they fear being too predictable, however, more often than not this has lead to films which are so ridiculously far-fetched they border on being laughable. For an example see the film Shutter. Yes, it’s horror and it’s difficult to be “believable” and original there but there’s a motif revealed at the end which fooled me, yes but also made me laugh when I saw it.
People have no problem with predictability believe it or not. We just want good. If you find me a person who walked in to The King’s Speech who having read the synopsis didn’t know what to expect I have a bridge I need to sell. It’s somewhat predictable nature doesn’t stop it from being a damn fine film. It’s just good we want, not tricks, which are after all for kids.