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Unknown: A conspiracy plot more baffling than thrilling

Liam Neeson in a scene from "Unknown."


2 out of 4 stars


In Unknown, Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist who arrives in Berlin with his wife (January Jones) to attend a biotech conference. When he realizes he has left his briefcase back at the airport, he leaves her at the hotel's reception desk and hops in a taxi. En route to the airport the taxi crashes.

When he awakes from a coma four days later, he discovers that no one, including his pretty wife, knows who he is. Worse, another man (Aidan Quinn) seems to have taken his place, both as scientist and husband. Stuck in wintry Berlin, without identification papers or his hotel suite, the doctor has to win back his life.

So far, so good - even if Unknown feels paradoxically familiar. There have been a few major political and psychological thrillers over the years featuring amnesia, conspiracy and an attractive female sidekick (Diane Kruger in this case) and Unknown manages to borrow from several of them. Catalan director Jaume Collet-Serra ( Orphan), working from a script based on a French novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, keeps true to the hero's point-of-view and, for the first third, makes the film feel like a modest throwback to a Cold War-style thriller - well-suited to Neeson, with his noble, bewildered face and slow-burn hesitancy. Though the film offers fewer opportunities for him to beat up Euro-baddies than his missing-daughter hit, Taken, there's a similar vibe here.

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The first sign of slipping credibility occurs when Martin finds he's being chased by a mysterious bespectacled man. (Why chase when he could have walked up to him?) Then he suddenly remembers the number of the taxi, and seeks out the driver, Gina (Kruger), who saved his life. She turns out to be an illegal Bosnian immigrant who doesn't want any police problems. In another improbable bit of luck, Martin also gets a tip that takes him to an East German Stasi agent, who does some freelance detective work.

The retired agent is played by the great Bruno Ganz ( Nosferatu the Vampyre, Wings of Desire), who is mordantly funny. (His coughing fit might even be the highlight of the movie.) He also has the movie's best scene - with Frank Langella, a colleague of Martin's who comes to Berlin for his own reasons.

The art of the classic Hitchcockian thriller is about style, pace and misdirection - and though Unknown is occasionally baffling and involves running and car chases, the film rarely manages to thrill. Martin and Gina keep dodging mysterious assassins on a race through the Berlin night (illegal squats, rave nightclubs, art galleries), surviving more crashes and some loopy, subjective camera work designed to cast doubts about Martin's sanity.

There are scenes here both intentionally and unintentionally funny, including one where Martin and his impersonator (Quinn) simultaneously recite identical stories to a mystified scientist (Sebastien Koch), each claiming to be his American colleague. However, amusement turns to increasing glumness as the plot of Unknown digs itself so deeply into improbabilities that the solution, inevitably, feels absurd, second-hand and second-rate.


  • Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
  • Written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell
  • Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn and January Jones
  • Classification: 14A
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