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Movie Review: Melodramatic 'Unknown' shows pitfalls of rookie directing

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Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Diane Kruger
Rated: PG-13

“Unknown” isn't really a bad movie. But I liked it better when it was one of several Hitchcock films, Roman Polanski's “Frantic,” or Pierre Morel's “Taken,” which starred Liam Neeson (who heads the cast here as well).

If Hitchcock, the master of suspense, had directed this film, it may have played well. Relatively inexperienced director Jaume Collet-Serra simply isn't skilled enough to pull it off.

The story is a good one, albeit full of semi-truck sized holes. The principal actors do the best they can with stiff dialog, preposterous situations and melodrama that would make a soap opera blush. Still there's an underlying germ of a good suspense thriller - it just never comes to fruition. By the time “Unknown” was over, Terry (my ever-present movie companion) and I were sighing with bewilderment and had enjoyed several moments of “Beavis and Butthead” style dialogue. No one was near us so we were merely being rude to the film, not the other patrons.

Liam Neeson, looking like he's already taken a blow to the noggin before that happens, is professor Martin Harris. He's attending a biotechnology conference in Berlin with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones.) At the airport, the cabbie loads their baggage for them -  most of their baggage, that is. In a very melodramatic and ominous shot, director Collet-Serra leads our eye to the professor's briefcase, still on the luggage cart at the curb. To be fair, the briefcase has about as much personality as almost every other character in the film, so it deserves its closeup.

Upon arriving at the hotel, Martin discovers his briefcase isn't with the baggage and begins sweating bullets. There's obviously something of earth-shattering importance in the thing, and it must not be lost. One wonders why, if it's so important, the professor wouldn't have it handcuffed to his wrist rather than trusting its well being to a cab driver he had met 30 seconds before.

That's beside the point, I guess. Martin catches another cab - he doesn't bother to tell his  wife who is checking into the hotel - and rushes back to the airport. This time the cabbie is a young woman named Gina, played by the luminous Diane Kruger, who is the one bright spot (even better than the briefcase) in the film. If you saw her in “Troy” or “Inglourious Basterds,” you will no doubt remember her.

Luckily (or conveniently), the holy grail briefcase is recovered, and Martin and Gina head back to the hotel. As luck (and screenwriters) would have it, a refrigerator falls out of the back of a truck, Gina swerves to avoid it and the cab plunges into the river. Gina, as resourceful as she is beautiful, manages to save Martin who has suffered a blow to the head.

Martin wakes after a four-day coma, and defying the doctor's orders, he flees the hospital to find his wife and his briefcase. This is the point where Martin becomes a wannabe Hitchcock lead character. He shows up at the hotel only to find his wife with another man and claiming to not have any idea who Martin is or anything about a briefcase.

Martin's only friend is Gina. Granted, she's a bad driver, but she is quite the hot young thing. She does her befuddled best to take care of him but things start to get weird(er).

Bruno Ganz shows up as a Stasi agent and the ever-creepy Frank Langella appears as one of Martin's longtime colleagues in Berlin for the same conference.

When Martin finds the briefcase, he proves that it is his, as of the few things he remembers is the combination to it. At last he's gotten his passport back, has some money and the precious contents in the briefcase. The briefcase that, as pointed out, he should have had handcuffed to his wrist.

Martin's paranoia increases at the same rate that viewers wonder: “What in the heck is in the briefcase?”

But just because he's paranoid doesn't mean that people aren't actually out to get him or that his wife - and her “real” husband - aren't implicated.  The only confusing thing is why.

Collet-Serra tidies it all up in the final 20 minutes, and while I don't want to give too much away, I can't resist saying that the earth-shattering contents of the film's star briefcase is best described as quite “corny.”

“Unknown” is a silly and unsatisfying film that actually might have been great, if Alfred Hitchcock was still around.
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