“Unknown” stars Liam Neeson in a role that he is fast becoming the model for: an anxious, confused, but nonetheless heroic man confronted with apparently overwhelming tasks. (See “Taken,” for instance.) He perseveres against better-armed and well-prepared bad guys, wreaking unexpected havoc in their ranks against all odds, defying their credulity and ours. It is, of course, a given that he will win because, hey, this is a movie.
As the film opens, botanist Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is en route to Berlin along with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones). He will deliver a paper and, perhaps more crucially, meet with a German colleague with whom he has corresponded but never met. Their mutual interest is in creating a strain of corn which is weather-resistant and grows almost anywhere, an invention that would seriously impact world hunger. Better still, an Arabian prince will join them to announce that they will make the miracle grain available for free.
The troubles start when Martin forgets his briefcase at the airport and returns to find it, without telling Elizabeth. On the way in a taxi driven by an illegal Bosnian immigrant, Gina (Diane Kruger), they meet with an accident and plunge off a bridge and into the river. Gina saves him, but flees the scene as Marin is rushed to the hospital. When he awakens from a coma four days later, he remembers little about the accident and not very much about his reason for being in Berlin.
But, as the doctor predicts, his memory gradually returns, so he hastens back to the hotel where he had left his wife. To his amazement, she doesn’t recognize him; more confounding, another man, claiming to be Martin, has usurped his place at the conference. And he seems to know everything about Martin’s life, even the most personal details about his past. With no passport and no friends—though curiously left with some money—Martin is a stranger adrift in a strange land.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra visually emphasizes Martin’s predicament, placing him alone, though with people watching him and trying to kill him. (The graffito “OZ” appears all over the walls, further underlining the displaced world he finds himself in.) Only after he tracks down Gina and gains her assistance does he begin to turn things around. On the way to his inevitable redemption, there are chases aplenty, narrow escapes, and a giant number of holes in the plot as big as the potholes currently ornamenting our streets. (Presumably, these were filled in by the novelist who wrote the book from which the movie is adapted.) Think the “Bourne” series, which it resembles in a number of ways.
Cinematographer Flavio Labiano helps establish the forbidding, chilling atmosphere, desaturating the colors in a grey cement landscape. The score, by John Ottman and Alexander Rudd, is effective, though pretty standard thriller stuff. And though the screenplay has a bit too many twists for my taste, it supplies some surprises along the way to the predictable resolution.
Neeson occupies the screen in almost every scene, and he’s his usual reliable self. I liked Kruger, who makes Gina a credible character in an incredible story. Smaller contributions by Bruno Ganz as an ex-East German secret policeman and Frank Langella as Martin’s untrustworthy colleague add to a solid acting ensemble (with the unfortunate exception of Jones, especially in the movie’s latter stages).
“Unknown” is rated “PG-13,” largely for violence but with a bit of sexual suggestiveness. I’m guessing it would prove more confusing than entertaining for most preteens, in any case. But adults who fondly recall Hitchcock may find this a nice escape from the February blahs.