Monday, February 21, 2011

An Intelligent Thriller

"Intelligent Thriller" has become an oxymoron these days. Movies that claim to be thrillers aren't intelligent, and those that are intelligent (rare) aren't thrillers.

So it was a pleasure to watch "Unknown" starring Liam Neeson, the superdad/dude of 2008's Taken, who pulls off yet another masterful performance in an intricate plot that pits ruthless agricultural-industrial-complex (Monsanto & co?) against a lone botanist's breakthrough crop.

Botanist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) arrives in Berlin with his wife to present a paper at a biotechnology summit. It is snowing and people are scurrying for warmth. The couple arrives at their hotel in a cab, and as Mrs. Harris (January Jones) checks in, Harris realizes that he has left his briefcase containing the material for his talk at the airport. He grabs a taxi and tries to rush back to the airport to retrieve it.

These first few minutes of the movie are all the serenity you will get. The rest is a wild ride (literally, and the three car chases are alone worth the price of the movie) of amnesia, doppelganger, intrigue, mystery and murder. Along the way, you see how a former Stasi officer accepts the inevitable with a resigned fatalism and how immigrants who give their blood and sweat to keep Berlin humming are blamed for all the ills of the city.

The more the layers are peeled away, the more Harris appears unknown to himself. Who am I really? What's my past? Have I been here before? What's at stake? Who is calling the shots, and why?

One may be tempted to compare it to the "Bourne" franchise but "Unknown" is more satisfying in the stylish and suspenseful way it gathers the loose ends together and brings the story to a more plausible conclusion. There is terror in the icy coolness of the killers (Frank Langella in particular) that is balanced by the love of ordinary human beings (especially Diane Kruger) toward one another. In the few places where the story veers toward the improbable, I found the willing suspension of disbelief an easy antidote.

Liam Neeson is both tough and tender, although his perfect enunciation can sometimes dilute the effect of mayhem about to ensue. "Unknown" is a known quantity in that it delivers both intelligence and suspense in roughly equal measures. The only mystery is: Why can't we have more movies like this?

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