In Berlin on business, an American man arrives at his hotel only to discover that he’s left an important briefcase at the airport. Without even telling his wife, he summons a taxi and hurries away. Won’t he be sorry. The taxi plunges off a bridge and the man wakes up in a hospital four days later, without his precious briefcase. And for that matter, without his wife, who no longer recognizes him and has apparently let another man take over his identity.
In Unknown, Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, who flies to Berlin for a biotechnology conference and ends up losing his wife and identity. Typical!
These things usually have a perfectly implausible explanation, often having to do with deadly espionage. Anyway, being Liam Neeson, the man doesn’t take it lying down. Well, O.K., there’s this one scene where he’s been sedated and strapped onto a gurney by a medical professional who obviously could give a hoot about the Hippocratic Oath. But after that our man is up and about, determined to get to the bottom of his dilemma.
Let it be said that given a wife played by January Jones, of “Mad Men,” with her usual vacancy, and a taxi driver played by Diane Kruger, with just a tad more élan (not much is required), he might have considered taking advantage of his situation. Other involved persons include Aidan Quinn as the apparent impostor, Bruno Ganz as a seasoned ex-Stasi investigator, and Frank Langella as a mysterious acquaintance from back in the U.S.
It’s almost touching—but not quite—to find Neeson grappling with identity theft. Remember in Schindler’s List when he regretted not having done more to help? Remember in Taken when he killed more people (without regret) than most Nazis ever did? Remember in Clash of the Titans when he had a big beard and phosphorescent armor and was Zeus? Good, because there is not much to remember in Unknown.
Of course, there is the matter of his honor. Possibly. The movie isn’t sure. It’s distracted. It has a rickety twist to protect. Judging by the steely gray European atmosphere, the ominous wrong-identity plot, and the peppering of skeletally pretty blonde actresses, Unknown aspires to be an old-fashioned thriller like they used to make back when there was an East Germany.
Its denouement, however, would seem to result from a quick study of 1980s action movies (a study of 1980s Roman Polanski movies might have been more useful). It also has a few colorful, choppy flashbacks, put in for effect and for explanation. The writers are Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, adapting Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel Out of My Head, and the director is Jaume Collet-Sera, whose previous forgettable wintry thriller with a twist was 2009’s Orphan. Editor Tim Alverson seems to have cut every scene as if trying first to conceal and then to apologize for what it contains.
This much can be revealed: The American man’s reason for being in Berlin was a biotechnology conference; the espionage is agricultural. More than once, someone explains that what’s really at stake here is “a new strain of corn.” Indeed.