"But what I do have are a very particular set of skills..."
Liam Neeson is one of the actors on my A-list. Unlike the mainstream A-list, mine has little to do with how famous you are, or how much money you make. Mine is reserved for actors, actresses, directors, etc. who- despite how good or bad the movie as a whole may be- never (or extremely rarely) fail to deliver. Anyone can end up in a bad production, but if you bring your A game no matter what, than that's the list you'll be on.
Let me be clear- Unknown, is not a bad production. All in all it's a very entertaining film, but it falls short of the next level where movies go from watchable to recommendable. The reason it falls short is it's lack of clear direction. The story of Unknown is a thriller; unfortunately Unknown doesn't seem to know that (that joke is just to obvious so I'm going hold my tongue). And so, identity thrown to the wind, Unknown starts to grope blindly through a treasure trove of intrigue movies, trying desperately to find a mantle that fits. A dark psychological mystery? A gritty who-done-it? A race against time, assassin romp? Unknown tries, but can't seem to make any one fit with or over the others.
There are rather blatant attempts to force Bourne-style action, but they must indeed be forced because on their own they just don't fit. This is an unfortunate truth about Unknown; that it will inevitably be compared to The Bourne series. That the movies have certain themes in common there is no doubt, that should have been all the more reason to take Unknown deeper into the thriller/intrigue realm, instead of trying to emulate the "trade mark" action of a movie that's just barely it's narrative peer. Especially when, in the course of attempting said emulation, one is forced to sacrifice screen time for the more interesting parts of the story you have.
Without question, the brightest sub-plot to suffer for these extended action sequences is that of Bruno Ganz as ex-Stasi agent Ernst Jurgen. Through his cool and calm portrayal of the retired spy, Ganz steals each and every scene he appears in. While the mystique surrounding his character is a large part of the appeal, it seems an extraordinary waste that he comes and goes as fast as he does. In a screenplay that seems to lurch and jerk as it tries to fit into so many different skins, Jurgen is smooth and confident, with a yoda-like slow gate that oozes wisdom and power. Despite all the big reveals and action set pieces, it's this character's final scene that stands out as the must see moment of this film.
Beside Bourne, the other inevitable, and unfortunate, comparison that will be made with Unknown is Taken. Unfortunate because what made Taken such a succulent, enjoyable movie was it's purity. It knew exactly what it was, and so wasted little time on filler or side dishes. Because of this, the little time it does waste is forgivable. This is a trait Unknown could never match. It doesn't know what it is- and so it tries to be too many things. I wouldn't call it a waste of ticket money (If you appreciate Mr. Neeson like I do, you won't be disappointed), but I'd have a hard time pointing to it over some other titles above the box office. Unknown is a perfect example of the old figure of speech: Jack of all trades, master of none.
Reel Deal Recommends:
Taken: Neeson commands the screen; the action is apt and delicious.
Downfall: Ganz' spectacular turn as the most infamous man in history.