Film Friday: ‘Unknown’ and ‘I Am Number Four’

by W. Andrew Powell

January Jones and Liam Neeson in Unknown

January Jones and Liam Neeson in Unknown

Opening this weekend in theatres: Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger star in the action-thriller, Unknown; I Am Number Four stars Alex Pettyfer as a super-powered teenager on the run; plus a look at Small Town Murder Songs, and Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.

Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz
Director: Jaume Collet-Sera

Rated: 6/10

Making a great thriller is a lot like pulling off a great magic act. The point of the show isn’t how many great tricks you can fill the time with, but how many times you can actually wow your audience with big tricks that are as grandiose as they are effortlessly executed.

Director Jaume Collet-Sera’s Unknown certainly has one big trick up its sleeve, there’s no doubt about that, but it will almost certainly leaving you looking up the magician’s sleaves.

Set in Berlin, Unknown stars Liam Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, the victim of a car accident who wakes up to discover that his wife, played by January Jones, doesn’t know who he is and another man, played by Aidan Quinn, has almost literally stepped into his shoes, claiming he is in fact the real Dr. Harris. Coming off like a deranged stalker, or a fevered car accident victim, Martin flails around wildly to find anyone who will believe him while he also hunts for answers.

His only friend, as he fights to find out what happened to his life, is the taxi driver, Gina, played by Diane Kruger, who pulled him out of the cab as it started to sink into the river, and a former Stasi officer turned private detective, played by Bruno Ganz.

Picking away at the pieces of the puzzle, Martin must try to remember what happened before the accident as he hopes something will bring a clue to what is happening to him now. When a man comes after him, it’s the first clue that whether Martin is crazy or not, something much bigger is going on than he originally thought.

The biggest problem with Collet-Sera’s would-be action thriller is that it takes a long time to get into the action part of the thrills, and for that matter the early thrills are mostly on the light side of real thriller territory. We get an occasional scene where someone’s neck is snapped, or Martin is running for his life, but somehow the urgency is missing and the pace is sluggish.

As an onlooker, you want Martin to figure it out and you want him to knock some heads together, but I never felt terribly worried what might happen to him.

At the same time, Unknown has a lot going for it. Neeson and Kruger are a great duo, and Bruno Ganz is nothing short of amazing in his darkly comic role. The cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is also stylish, and moves swiftly through the streets of Berlin. Labiano’s keen eye captures the fights, the explosions, and the car chases superbly.

Screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell just don’t have a very strong story to tell though, and the whole film lacks the sharp edge you expect from a good thriller. They get the dialogue right, and the mood is tense at times, but next to the usual tricks that are required to pull off a good action thriller, Unknown’s big surprise doesn’t ring true–it feels dishonest to the rest of the film–and because the movie doesn’t lead into these answers very well, Unknown feels desperate for a conclusion, any conclusion in fact in which Neeson can finally hurt someone.

Unknown is not a terrible film, it’s just not what we expect from an actor like Neeson, and it’s not half as clever as it wants you to think. Once it plays its final big trick, that becomes all too obvious.

Also opening this weekend…

I Am Number Four
Starring: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Kevin Durand, Callan McAuliffe
Director: D.J. Caruso

Disturbia director D.J. Caruso helms a sci-fi action adventure about a young man named John, played by Alex Pettyfer, who is on the run from enemies who are out to destroy him.

Acting like a fugitive on the run, John moves from town to town, changing his identity as he goes so he can hopefully elude his pursuers, but there is something very special about John; he’s not like everyone else. John has abilities, and when he moves to Paradise, Ohio, he finds himself becoming more powerful as he falls in love with a high-school student named Sarah, played by Dianna Agron.

Written by Smallville’s Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Marti Noxon, I Am Number Four is essentially what the trailers make it look like: a super-powered teen movie that might remind you of Twilight more than anything else.

Based on the majority of reviews from critics, the film is definitely a dud, unless you’re 16 and looking for something mildly entertaining this weekend.

Michelle Orange of Movieline wrote, “Anyone who has ever been a child or played with one is familiar with the narrative universe of I Am Number Four, a teen alien/superhero/savior/vampire mash-up that’s all guts and no glory.”

While Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter wrote in his review, “A high-school movie with a sci-fi twist ultimately fumbles away a golden opportunity to give youth conflicts an added dimension.”

Small Town Murder Songs
Starring: Peter Stormare, Aaron Poole, Jill Hennessy, Martha Plimpton
Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly

Small Town Murder Songs premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and stars Swedish actor Peter Stormare, Aaron Poole, Jill Hennessy, and Martha Plimpton. In this dark, complex, and powerfully moody film Stormare stars as Walter, an aging cop with a dark past. When an unknown girl is violently murdered, the result is that Walter begins to question his beliefs as he seeks fresh redemption.

Written and directed by Toronto’s own Ed Gass-Donnelly, the film is almost a biblical tale of modern-day reckoning with an awe-inspiring soundtrack by Bruce Peninsula.

Watch my interview with Gass-Donnelly.

Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son
Starring: Martin Lawrence, Brandon T. Jackson, Jessica Lucas
Director: John Whitesell

Lastly, Big Momma is back, played once again by Martin Lawrence, and this time he’s got his step son Trent, played by Brandon T. Jackson, dressing up as a woman too to help bust bad guys.

Written by Matthew Fogel and directed by John Whitesell, the film is quite obviously awful. As Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel quipped, “The airless Matthew Fogel-Don Rhymer script makes one long for the snark and sass of Madea.”

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