February 23, 2011

Orson Welles once explained that he was, inevitably, what the Comédie-Française called a King Actor. “€œThey weren”€™t necessarily the best actors; they were the actors who played the king.”€ Welles had to be cast as the highest authority character “€œor I discombobulate the scenes,”€ because the audience couldn”€™t figure out why he wasn”€™t in charge. Thus, the great man’s last role was as Unicron, the planet-sized bad guy in the 1986 cartoon Transformers: The Movie. “€œYou know what I did this morning? I played the voice of a toy,” Welles mused to his biographer shortly before his death.

Similarly, in the 2007 blockbuster Transformers, Michael Bay directed his animators to model the good robots”€™ wise leader Optimus Prime’s body language on today’s most imposing patriarchal presence, Liam Neeson.

But the 6″€™4″€ actor’s apotheosis was the surprise 2009 hit Taken, in which Neeson plays an ex-CIA man whose daughter is kidnapped in Paris by Albanian sex slavers. Taken wasn”€™t a great movie, but it made a great trailer built around the Dangerous Dad’s speech to the head pimp promising, “€œI will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”€

Unknown isn”€™t exactly a sequel to Taken, though it certainly sounds like one. They”€™ve merely reversed the polarities in this tale of international intrigue: Instead of France, it’s Germany. Instead of Taken‘s evil Muslims, Unknown features good Muslim victims of discrimination against illegal immigrants. And instead of Neeson as an unstoppable killing machine who will blow up anything necessary to get his daughter back, here he plays a childless botanist who wanders around dazed and ineffectual from a bump on the head.

“€œWhat’s wrong with a tough guy sounding like he’s from Ulster, a region that has produced many a formidable fellow?”€

Making Neeson unpaternal, passive, and depressed starts Unknown off in a hole relative to Taken. Yet Unknown works hard to be a decent thriller for older audiences, a Bourne movie for middle-aged filmgoers who get motion sickness from modern shaky-cam. At times, Unknown almost veers from star vehicle to ensemble film, especially when stage legends Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella spar as old Cold War rivals in co-screenwriter Stephen Cornwell’s tribute to his father John le Carré’s Berlin spy novels.

Unknown has less action than Taken but more acting. The slightly larger budget was invested in an interesting supporting cast, allowing the film to metaphorically explore theater actors”€™ anxieties about their understudies: What if I get sick and my understudy makes everybody forget about me?


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