It’s difficult to explain what went wrong with “Unknown” without giving away the ending. So you must take my word for it that, though it starts out promising, it just doesn’t deliver. I can’t get into details about the twist, of course, but I can tell you that the motivations feel pretty slap-dash and the subsequent events are borderline cartoonish.
As the film opens, Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz, (January Jones) are on their way to a biotech conference in Berlin. We don’t really know much about it other than he seems super nervous about the speech he must give and, as a result, leaves his all-important briefcase on the luggage cart at the airport. He doesn’t find out that it’s missing until they’re already at the hotel and Liz has gone inside to check in. Rather than take the two seconds to tell his wife what’s up, Martin decides to hail the next available cab and head back to the airport. En route, a random accident lands the cab and its passengers in the river. The lovely lady cabbie saves Martin’s life and then quickly flees the scene. Martin wakes up in a hospital four days later with no I.D. and a minor case of amnesia. When he finally makes it back to the hotel to meet up with his wife, he finds that another man (Aidan Quinn), claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris, has replaced him. Nobody he knows, including his wife, will acknowledge his identity and he’s ejected from the hotel, left to figure this whole mess out. Of course, he eventually teams up with the conveniently pretty cab driver (Diane Kruger), an illegal alien trying to raise the dough to get out of Berlin. They’re aided by a former Stasi agent with a dark past and a knack for getting to the bottom of things.
“Unknown” bears a striking resemblance to “Frantic.” For a while, it’s nearly on par with Roman Polanski’s film. There are grand shots of snowy Berlin and exciting chases through and underneath the city. Though it sometimes dips into cliché action movie territory, something about the European setting lends it an air of credibility. But, when it finally comes time to start explaining what the deal is, things get pretty silly. It’s as if they started filming immediately after they thought of the premise and forgot that they would eventually have to wrap things up. Once the twist is revealed, it’s wham bam thank you ma’am right up to the ridiculous end.
Also lending credibility are the performances. Character actors abound, including “Downfall’s” Bruno Ganz and the inherently creepy Frank Langella. Neeson seems right at home as the gentle giant in the inadvertent caper. (I guess this is just what he does now.) The only one who’s out of place is January Jones. Sure, she looks the part of the femme fatale, but a lot of people can wear their hair like Veronica Lake. I’m an enormous “Mad Men” fan, but I’ve never been seduced by the wooden doll named January. She may have Matthew Weiner fooled, but her juju doesn’t work on me.
A second bump on the head restores Martin’s memory (as seen in the trailer…settle down, anti-spoiler freaks) just in time for the face-off between the two Martins. This fight is inevitable in more than just the context of the film. Neeson and Quinn have had similar careers, jumping between Oscar bait, romantic leads and action roles. Quinn, it seems, is always just a step behind. It’s fun to see these two lads duke it out for top Irish actor in Hollywood.
“Unknown” isn’t exactly a hot Razzie mess. For the most part, it’s a fairly enjoyable addition to the European Amnesia Thriller genre. But it’s also quite forgettable, even if you haven’t experienced head trauma.