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Know this about ‘Unknown’: It’s cheesy

Published 8:31am Thursday, February 24, 2011

Column: Screen Time

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the director who brought us “Orphan” and “House of Wax,” but the premise of “Unknown” seemed enticing and Liam Neeson usually picks his roles well. Mr. Neeson, I’ll mark this one as a strike against you.

“Unknown” stars Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, an American botanist in Berlin, Germany, for a biotechnology summit. After a car accident leaves him comatose for four days, he awakens to find no one remembers him — including his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones) — and that someone has assumed his identity (Aidan Quinn). With the help of the cab driver who saved his life, Gina (Diane Kruger), and ex-German security agent turned private investigator Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), Harris needs to prove who he is as he pieces together his past and a conspiracy to take him out unfolds.

Most action movies disguised as thrillers like “Unknown” take liberties when it comes to certain plot details, and you are expected to suspend your disbelief for the sake of booms, crashes and bangs. You expect long, drawn-out car chases that defy the laws of physics a few dozen times before they’re over and fight scenes that would have left actual human beings dead at least a couple of times, but there’s a line between skirting the unbelievable and something that belongs in “The Matrix.”

Most modern action films have been migrating to the latter.

What carries those movies, though, is a quasi-believable storyline, which I was hoping would eventually develop in “Unknown.”

Case No. 1: Harris bumps his head as the taxi he is in plunges into a river, and he develops amnesia.

Case No. 2: Following the aforementioned action movie car chase, a second taxi rolls a quarter of a mile upside-down (maybe Dr. Harris should avoid taxis), and he jumps out without a scratch. I’ll forgive that, and the other action movie clichés, in exchange for a good story.

But the decision-making process of Harris, those helping him, and those out to get him really don’t make any sense for the first half of the film. Granted, Harris does have amnesia, and it’s supposed to be confusing for him and those watching him — so you kept waiting patiently for an explanation, and when it came I thought, “Oh, well I suppose that makes a little more sense.”

Well, sort of. I guess if you don’t think too much, it’s more enjoyable.

Liam Neeson does work hard to keep the story going — and he should be commended for what he brings — but in this tug of war between good acting and a bad script, the latter eventually won out.

The only action flick staple missing was the cheesy one-liner, so when Harris tells his imposter “I didn’t forget everything. I remember how to kill you,” that item was crossed off the checklist, too.

Tribune Audience Manager Adam Harringa’s column appears every Thursday.