Unknown (Warner Bros., 2011)
Liam Neeson ass-kicked his way out of the art house and into action hero territory with Taken, and for a minute, we all thought he was about to bring a touch of class to the modern blockbuster genre through sheer force of will (not to mention his singular gravitas and mountainous bulk). Alas, Neeson’s just really been into making movies lately, and the last couple of years have given us a pile of shitty movies whose scripts he seemingly rubber-stamped without looking at them. Unknown, with its cool blue poster and early ’11 release, seemed like a walk down the same seemingly-ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-circumstances-and-oh-by-the-way-it’s-in-Europe path we followed for Taken, and its lukewarm theatrical reviews only reinforced that impression. Does it fare any better on the small screen?
Synopsis: Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) awakens after a car accident in Berlin to discover that his wife (January Jones) suddenly doesn’t recognize him and another man (Aidan Quinn) has assumed his identity. Ignored by disbelieving authorities and hunted by assassins, he finds himself alone, tired, and on the run.
On his own in a strange country, Martin seeks aid from an unlikely and reluctant source (Diane Kruger) as he plunges headlong into a deadly mystery that will force him to question his sanity, his identity, and just how far he’s willing to go to uncover the truth.
Video: You’d expect a modern action thriller that unspools across the streets of Berlin to take full advantage of its location, and Unknown does just that — this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer highlights the movie’s cool-hued cinematography without sacrificing detail, maintaining texture and grain and avoiding digital artifacting even during the most darkly lit scenes. However you feel about its script, Unknown is one of the more visually pleasant action movies we’ve gotten lately, and it doesn’t disappoint on Blu-ray.
Audio: Top-notch. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack balances booming sound effects with background noise, dialogue, and the pounding score, making for a lot of high-volume fun with a surround system.
Special Features: You get a whopping nine minutes of extra content, all contained in a pair of deeply inessential featurettes (Liam Neeson: Known Action Hero and Unknown: What Is Known?). About the best you can say for them is that they won’t take up much of your time.
Bottom Line: It lacks the pure visceral thrill of Taken, but Unknown has its own pleasures — rather than a pure action thriller, it’s more of a Hitchcockian mystery, and one whose central conceit is immediately gripping. A movie with a protagonist who’s essentially confused about his own identity requires a magnetic leading man, and Neeson transcends the genre trappings of the material here; he communicates pain, confusion, and calculated rage with equal aplomb.
Much as I loved Neeson’s performance, I almost appreciated Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction more — it’s rare these days that you can even tell what’s going on during an action set piece, what with all the jump cuts and handicam shenanigans, but Unknown keeps you squarely rooted in the action without making you fight to follow along. Even the movie’s big car chase is clearly framed (and it doesn’t skimp on the adrenaline, either — young directors, take note).
Somewhat predictably, Unknown stumbles when it comes to sticking the landing in the third act — like most modern thrillers, it mistakes a flurry of twists for genuine intelligence or a clear sense of purpose — but at least it doesn’t rely on any truly inane plot devices. Still, it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself thinking about the movie after the closing credits roll, and that’s a pretty critical flaw for a movie like this. Worth a rental? Surely. But you don’t need to own it, especially with such a cruddy selection of extras.