Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is visiting Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones). They arrive at the hotel, and Martin discovers that he has left his briefcase behind at the airport, so, while his wife is checking in, he hops back in a cab and heads back to retrieve it. En route, a cabinet falls off a flatbed truck. The cab driver swerves to avoid it, but the car skids and goes off a bridge. Martin hits his head on the window, and slips into a coma. Four days later, he wakes up in a hospital with only a limited memory of who he is. Returning to the hotel, he tries to locate his wife, only to discover she is with a stranger who also claims to be Dr. Martin Harris.
Neeson scored big two years ago with Taken, an action thriller that sent the actor to Paris in search of his missing daughter. With a teaser poster that places Neeson in front of big, blocky text and a first-quarter release date, Unknown looks to step into Taken's shoes the same way the stranger steps into Martin's, but there is more identity theft going on than the one in the plot. Although the screenplay is openly based on a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert, the film, by Orphan director Jaume Collet-Serra, steals with aplomb from other, smarter thrillers.
The first hour and a half have Dr. Walker -- er, sorry, Dr. Harris, Frantically searching the city for evidence of his identity. The first and most obvious lead is the cab driver, whose name is Gina (Diane Kruger). She lives in a grungy, thin-walled apartment, which comes in handy when nameless, villainous thugs show up and try to kill them both. The pair make their escape, first on foot, then on wheels in a remarkably dull car chase that relies heavily on Paul-Greengrass-esque shots of the shift stick. Sometimes when you are a doctor, it pays to take a defensive driving course or two. Bit by bit, the pair reconstruct Bourne's -- apologies, Martin's footsteps, eventually gaining a great deal of help from Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the Stasi with a thirst for private-eye business.
Perhaps I'm being unfair. As they say, there are no truly original stories left; everything is a riff or take on something else. In that case, Unknown would do well to pick up the pace and throw in a few more action scenes for anyone who did want to see Neeson roughing up some more Europeans. The movie's 113 minutes feel more like 133 minutes, plodding along at a leisurely pace, stopping every once in awhile to make sure everyone with the comprehension level of a six-year-old has grasped each and every one of the plot's moronic developments. Unknown is the kind of movie where a villain, presented with a perfect opportunity to blot Martin out, chooses instead to take their sweet time explaining every last detail (probably so that Gina has time to speed her way over at the "last" second).
Eventually, Frank Langella shows up, all mysterious, dignified, and Langella-y, terrible secrets about corn are revealed (no word on whether Mark Whitacre or Tilda Swinton's Michael Clayton character are involved), and finally, George Kapl -- goodness me, Martin and Gina run around some more in a desperate race against the clock. There are more lingering questions, like whether amnesia affects a person's conscience, or whether being hit on the head is like an on/off lightswitch, but, like Unknown, it isn't worth the effort to piece everything together.
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