Liam Neeson underwent an unexpected twist in his career when he released Taken a few short years ago. It was an electrically invigorating film experience that blew away, in one fell sweep, all those years of actor expectations; gone was the genial and wise Neeson of old, his expectations replaced by those of this harder-edged, mature action hero. Unknown is his first attempt at re-creating that magic and it’s a failure; the film does not catch the lightning in a bottle, at best it is static in a beer-can.
Though we shouldn’t be surprised because, honestly, the premise is self-contradictory. Taken worked so well because it was so fresh and unexpected, we had no expectations and so it couldn’t help but deliver; by attempting such a thing again you instantly lose that uniqueness and so in a way you are doomed from the start. Perhaps though it is unfair to be constantly comparing this film with that one, but to be honest the point still plays because the film is unoriginal in so many other ways; the most prominent being that it is almost an un-official re-make of Roman Polanski’s Frantic.
On paper the premises look different enough that the whole thing could simply have just been a co-incidence – an esteemed doctor and his wife enter a strange European city to attend a conference before the two are separated under strange circumstances which the Doctor simply has to get to the bottom of – but the production pushes pretty far past homage. Entire scene set-ups are lifted directly from that film, but given the industry of today that is probably not enough to demonize a production; the real problem is that director Jaume Collett-Serra doubles-down his derivation by taking these scenes and squeezing everything unique out of them. While the film includes the entirety of the apartment mapping scene it then chooses to replace the clever cutting and comedy of the original with an over-done combat scene, whose only use of the scenery is in its flinging the characters through a convenient glass coffee table.
As for the direction, to be honest it borders on nauseating thanks to the sheer scale of its amateurish pomp. Newcomer Jaume is just so pleased to be working with such a strong budget and so seems completely obsessed with trying out every knob and feature of his camera; zooms, fades, strange exposures and cross-cutting are all utilized at seemingly random intervals, not as an attempt to create a visually interesting piece nor as a show of creativity but more because, hey, he could.
On this note the action is absolutely abhorrent and if I didn’t know better I would say that they were made as some kind of spoof because the editing is the most extreme example of that MTV mind-set that I have ever seen. They all play as if in fast-forward – most likely because Jaume wasn’t confident with the stunts and actually shot them in reduced speed – and have a mean shot length that is quite literally infinitesimal. Though this actually comes as something of a relief because there is never anything of interest occurring in these scenes, and on top of this they seem to be the worst examples of Collet-Serra’s sense skewering direction, so we may as well just get them over and done with.
As is the case with Frantic though the film itself isn’t so much about the action and you won’t actually find any, bar the completely spoiled crash that you have already seen all of in the previews, until at least an hour in. So it is then up to the story, setting and characters to keep us involved. It’s a shame then that there aren’t any characters; Neeson just plays ‘The Protagonist’, January Jones is best not mentioning or remembering and Diane Kruger, who seems to actually want to try, is given nothing to do but ‘act European’ and in this case that seems to just mean ditching your bra and putting on an accent. Whereas Frantic made fantastic use of its Parisian setting, Unknown couldn’t be much more vague about its location and in a lot of cases seems to carry a similar view to that of Cars 2 in its depiction of the city. East Germany has an amazing history and it is the perfect locale for such a mystery to take place and I just wish that there was more detail in its depiction. I must say though that there is one stunning scene featuring the Stasi side-kick that almost makes the movie worth-watching, I know that I want to see that spin-off.
As for the story, given that the film is, supposedly, all about making sense of the mystery it is probably best that I not go into detail. I will however say that while the final revelation is rather shocking, once you’ve swallowed it the after-taste actually isn’t that bad; in fact it all makes a lot more sense in the end than it really had any right to given the journey up to it especially considering that the same cannot be said about Frantic. It also reveals a nice irony in the fact that this film is so much stolen from another, one that I really hope was intentional because it would be one of the cleverest twists of the year if so, but again I struggle to give the benefit of the doubt here.
While Frantic is a film that could do with a good re-make (or a re-cut) this certainly isn’t it; it takes enough to anger fan-boys but not enough to impress the uninitiated. There is also not enough action for it to work in a ‘turn your mind off’ context like Taken did but nowhere near enough depth to work as a cerebral thriller. So to be honest there is no real market for this film as I see it. There are some nice ideas in here but overall they just consists of off-cuts, so the finished product is flabby and bland, never following through on its already meek potential.