Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2011 12:10 pm 
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Worse Bourne

Tall and craggy and at one time morally certified as Schindler in Schindler's List, 58-year-old Irish actor Liam Neeson currently wears the crown of aging action stars with a touch of class. The 68-year-old Harrison Ford is retired from the job, or should be. In Unknown as in the similarly one-word 2008 Neeson vehicle directed by Pierre Morel, Taken, things go badly wrong and Neeson gets to rush around full of righteous anger setting them right. But that senior action crown is beginning to wobble, due to the poor choice of projects. While Taken was no great shakes, Uknown is provided with a plot one cannot understand, let alone believe. Neeson should look more closely into the scripts before he takes a job. Working from a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert to produce Unknown, Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell have produced a clumsy patchwork with atmosphere but no logic. Neeson ought to have seen that. But he has scant time to vet his projects, since he's been in about fifteen movies in the past couple of years. How can he even remember which one he's promoting?

What we do know is that Neeson is Dr Martin Harris. That's what he says, "I'm Dr. Martin Harris." Never just plain old Martin Harris, or Martin, or Marty. The title rings hollower every time he repeats it. Could it be he's not really a "Dr."? Do renowned scientists, from New Hampshire, not the Midwest, in fact go around calling themselves "Dr." just because they have a Ph.D? Maybe so, but something feels fishy about the way the man says his name and title.

Well this Harris guy goes to Berlin for a biotechnology conference with his young wife Elizabeth. And indeed the actress, January Jones, whose performance as the wife in "Mad Men" shows an effectively queasy lack of conviction, is twenty-five years younger than our star. Well, guess what. There is something fishy going on. On the way to the hotel Harris' attaché case disappears and while Liz is checking in, he grabs a cab back to the airport -- without even telling LIz. He tried to call her on his cell phone, but he can't get a signal. Then his taxi crashes, he lands in the water, and he wakes up after four days in a coma.

Things turn out not to be the way the man we know as Dr. Martin Harris thinks they are. Eventually there emerges an elaborate scheme reminiscent, not of reality, certainly, but of Salt, with Angelina Jolie. That film was no less preposterous but fun. Why was that? It had better action, perhaps more explosions. But any Hollywood action film has explosions and car chases. The thing is, Angelina Jolie is a wildly extravagant, campy action heroine. Neeson has an obvious sobriety that makes you expect logic.

You don't get logic. But what Dr. Harris does get, because his wife is otherwise engaged -- in fact she may not be his wife -- his own Franka Potente, a true-blue on-the-run girl companion in adversity. She's Diane Kruger, the French actress, cast as the illegal Bosnian cab driver who saved Dr. Harris. Of course though this is an action film about a hero confused about his identity, it's only ersatz Bourne. And these plot similarities only underline that.

The even more renowned scientist who whatever-his-name-is has come to Berlin to support has developed something that is going to save us from world hunger. He's going to open-source it (take that, Monsanto and Dow) and it's a special strain of corn that will grow absolutely anywhere. That's funny: I thought we already had too much corn. But I guess it if really grows anywehre. . . Never mind: this is a detail accorded only seconds of screen time anyway.

Along the way Neeson's character gets help from Jürgen, an aging, run-down Stassi agent, played by the aging, run-down (but great, and still fun to watch) Bruno Ganz. After a while Frank Langella comes to see Jürgen, looking milder than usual, which turns out to be a bad sign. It's Langella who explains everything to Neeson and to us, in the last few minutes of the movie.

Unknown is convincing and exciting partway through. It is a decent film till Neeson gets back to the hotel from the hospital and his wife is with somebody else (Aidan Quinn), both of them claiming Neeson isn't Harris. From then on the movie seems preposterous and contrived. The lost attaché case, the return to the airport without telling the wife, the container that causes the taxi to crash off the bridge, the beautiful Bosnian who rescues Neeson from the water -- all are "accidents" that we're supposed to think contrived, but could not be. This plot, which similarities to Polanski's 1988 Frantic, is so full of holes that even if you overlook them you can't make sense out of it. My subtitle for Taken was "Bad Bourne." So this must be "Worse Bourne."

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