Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who has come to Berlin with his wife, Liz (January Jones), for a biotechnology conference. Almost immediately after arriving at his hotel, Martin discovers he left his briefcase at the airport and hops into a cab driven by Gina (Diane Kruger) to go retrieve it.
A car accident ends up with the cab in the river and Martin unconscious after a blow to the head. Gina pulls him out, but Martin ends up in a coma for four days.
After awakening in the hospital, he goes back to his hotel, but finds that his wife doesn’t remember him, and another man (Aidan Quinn) says he is Martin Harris and has the documentation to prove it. With his head trauma causing him to be a little fuzzy on names and dates, Martin even comes to doubt his identity himself, but the two dudes who are chasing him around Berlin and trying to kill him cause him to reconsider this.
Soon, Martin has recruited Gina and Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a private detective and former member of the East German Stasi, to help him prove his identity and unravel the conspiracy that surrounds him.
If this plot sounds fairly ridiculous—well, it is. And worse, the movie aims to be a twist-a-minute thriller while telegraphing the plot more than it thinks. But the movie, led by Neeson’s performance, does an admirable job of taking the whole thing seriously. The only problem is that in this case treating the script with respect may not be the best way to go.
Neeson is a big old hunk of gravitas right in the middle of the film. With movies such as Taken and The A-Team, Neeson has had a late-career resurgence as an unexpected action hero. These kinds of roles do tend to suit him, since he’s a fairly gigantic man who looks like he could stomp you to death or accidentally crush you with an enthusiastic hug. His stoic performance here helps ground some of the sillier aspects of the plot, but the filmmakers want to keep the audience guessing, and Neeson basically plays the same note of dogged decency the entire time and never really sells that he might be questioning his own sanity. On the other hand, the movie might have benefited from a less serious actor, someone more capable of rolling with the ridiculousness of the movie. And Neeson doesn’t do a particularly good job of selling lines such as, “I still remember how to kill you, asshole.”
The supporting cast does a good job, with one notable exception. Jones does quite affecting work on Mad Men, but that is perhaps due to her character on the show suiting her vacant acting style, while here she is fairly robotic without any good reason to be. Kruger seems a little more engaged, and has decent chemistry with Neeson, but the real MVPs of the film are Ganz and Frank Langella, both of whom dive into their small roles with relish.
As directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the film is slick and entertaining, a serviceable little action film, but it never soars beyond that. There are quite a few moments in the screenplay, written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, particularly in the third act, that are outrageous enough to suggest a much more fun, if stupider, version of the movie that doesn’t take itself quite as seriously.
Ridiculous moments such as these abound in the script. There is a hilarious scene in which both men who are claiming to be Martin Harris recite the same personal information at the same time almost verbatim. In order to get the plot going, the film has to resort to such unlikely plot gymnastics as Neeson going back for his briefcase without telling his wife first. The movie even falls back on old amnesia chestnuts like a second blow to the head triggering the amnesia victim’s dormant memories.
Unfortunately, the film never fully embraces the crazy. Collet-Serra also directed the utterly unhinged thriller Orphan, and we can sort of sense here that he would like to take the crazier threads of the film and run with them, but he unwisely shows some restraint.
There is a smarter, better-written version of this film that would have worked very well as a new version of a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller. However, the script that the film does have is too silly to take seriously, despite Neeson’s best efforts. With a little more indulgence paid to the crazier aspects of the film, it’s possible that the movie could have been some sort of gonzo masterwork, but the version of Unknown that we ended up with is merely a slick, serviceable film that gets the job done but isn’t all that memorable.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.