(by Dustin Putman
"Unknown" may be based on a novel ("Out of My Head" by Didier Van Cauwelaert), but the real reason for its existence is not difficult to determine: it is trying to ape the style and piggyback upon the success of 2009's taut, no-fuss "Taken." Working from a familiar, unimaginative screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, director Jaume Collet-Serra can only do so much to shield a plot that, once revealed in full, is disappointingly lame and discordantly handled. Collet-Serra's previous pictures, 2005's slick, phantasmagorically unhinged "House of Wax" remake and 2009's creepily ingenious "Orphan," showed exactly what he is capable of when the material is there to support his attentive filmmaking prowess. By comparison, "Unknown" is indistinctive and empty, forced to rely on multiple car chases, fist fights, and a literal ticking time bomb to cover up its lack of ideas. Article continues below
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) arrives in wintry Berlin with his beautiful wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), to give a presentation at a renowned biotechnology summit. Realizing that his briefcase was left at the airport, he takes a taxi back to retrieve it and is involved in a near-fatal car accident along the way. When he wakes from a coma four days later without his ID and passport, he is alarmed to realize Liz was never notified and has been left alone in a foreign city she does not know. Once Martin returns, however, he is perplexed to find that Liz doesn't recognize him and is seemingly married to another man (Aidan Quinn) who shares his name and identity. Understandably confused and led to naturally question if he might be suffering from some kind of memory loss, Martin teams up with the taxi driver who saved his life, Gina (Diane Kruger), to get to the bottom of who he is.
"Unknown" is engrossing for the better portion of its opening act, with Martin and Elizabeth landing in a lush Berlin snowstorm brought to vivid life via Flavio Labiano's (2008's "Timecrimes") sleek lensing. The subsequent accident, with the taxi Martin is riding in plunging off a bridge and into the icy river below, is well-directed, and the reuniting of Martin with a wife who no longer knows him ably kicks off the story's core mystery. This level of intrigue ultimately does not last as the film shifts into autopilot mode and doesn't know where to go. Martin, a cipher for reasons that shall be uncovered in due time, is a bland protagonist despite the dedicated efforts of an American-accented, growling-like-Harrison-Ford Liam Neeson (2010's "The A-Team"). His investigation into the suspicious goings-on around him should create a thick pall of paranoia, but it's too by-the-numbers to build any palpable atmosphere. Diane Kruger (2009's "Inglourious Basterds"), playing the best-looking taxi driver in the history of the cab system, is rendered undernourished by a script that calls for her to do little more than race around the streets with Martin. As for the car chases, well, they are largely forgettable when stacked next to superior set-pieces in everything from 2007's "The Bourne Ultimatum," to 2008's "Wanted," to 2010's "Salt."
When actual corn—yes, the vegetable—enters the frame, it has the misfortune of following a rickety showdown between Martin and sketchy colleague Rodney Cole (Frank Langella) where the ins and outs of what's been going on are prattled off in a lugubrious straight shot of exposition. It is too underwhelming to be surprising. The climax that follows is at least diverting, but also convoluted in the extreme as Martin continues to miraculously remember his past life at precisely the moment when it suits the narrative. The last scene is very likely to result in a cocked eyebrow and a shrug. When all is said and done, there's just not enough there to withstand a 113-minute running time.
"Unknown" sort of reminds of a reverse version of 1997's expert thriller "Breakdown," starring Kurt Russell as a man whose wife disappears without a trace when their car breaks down in the desert and she catches a ride to a nearby gas station with a good-samaritan truck driver. When Russell catches back up with the man, he claims to have never seen him or his wife before in his life. The film, one of the best suspensers of its respective decade, kept raising the stakes with tightly wound Hitchcockian tension and escalating revelations that made sense and satisfied. Where "Unknown" travels in the long run is quite different, but also deficient of the inspiration that "Breakdown" reverberated with in its every frame. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and star Liam Neeson are too good for a project as hackneyed as this one is.