Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, has some interesting elements going for it. Set in Berlin and armed with an attractive and sturdy cast, Unknown is swimming in themes of mistaken identity, murder and espionage – arguably very exciting and entertaining things. Unfortunately those elements are combined with implausibly pat coincidences, clunky dialogue and a few too many plot-lines.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) arrive in Berlin to attend A Very Important Science Conference, at which Martin is a noted guest of some sort. While checking into the hotel, Martin realizes that he has left his briefcase (which contains, among other things, his passport) at the airport – so without so much as a word to his wife, he jumps into a cab to retrieve it. The cab gets into an accident culminating with it running off of a bridge and into a river, rendering Martin comatose.
When Martin wakes from his coma he has no (or at least very little) memory of his own identity. During his stay in the hospital, he gradually begins to recollect certain things – his marriage to Liz and his purpose for being in Berlin. When he remembers where the conference is being held, Martin leaves the hospital to find his wife – who, when he does locate her, fails recognize him. Intrigue ensues.*
I would like to back up here a scooch, if I may. During Martin’s stay in the hospital, he learns that he has been in a coma for four days. Four. Days. He also learns that during this time (FOUR DAYS), no one has reported him missing. Alone and without any identification, the only two things he is certain of are his own name and the fact that he is married to a very young, beautiful woman named Liz.
He has vivid memories of being intimate with his wife and his primary concern – in spite of the fact that he has been in an EFFING COMA and NO ONE, NOT EVEN HIS BELOVED WIFE has bothered to look for him – is that she will be ‘terrified’ to be alone in a city she is unfamiliar with. This stood out to me and bothered me for reasons that I couldn’t shake.
Liz, while bland and seemingly devoid of an interesting personality, hardly struck me as timid or incapable of getting herself around a foreign city. Why exactly will she be ‘terrified’ to be in Berlin alone? It is a reasonable expectation for her to be worried/scared/concerned for her husband, but is she so incapable of functioning like an adult that she would be just sitting in her hotel room ‘terrified’?
Maybe it was strange for me to fixate so much on that weird little bit of dialogue, but it set a tone for me for the rest of the movie. For the film to move forward in a rational way, we have to believe that Dr. Martin Harris loves his wife – but also that he thinks she is mildly retarded.
So, moving on…Liz not only does not recognize Martin, but is in attendance with a man whom she introduces as her husband…also named Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn). This is very upsetting and confusing to Martin, and during his fit of duress he is escorted from the premises by security. A lot of other stuff happens (so, so much – I would argue more than the film can afford to chew) and to complicate things further, Martin is being persued by people who intend to kill him.
From here he resolves to go about the business of trying to sort out his life – seeking aid from the gorgeous cab driver (Diane Kruger) who rescued him from drowning after his accident – all the while dodging various assassination attempts.
Unknown feels very similar to some other thrillers that have been recently released (I’m thinking of Salt specifically and to a lesser extent – only because I haven’t seen it so this is based on what I gleaned from watching the trailer – The Tourist) in which we have a seemingly ordinary person placed in very extraordinary circumstances – a theme that I am generally fond of.
I was reminded of The Bourne Identity and Polanski’s Frantic as well – different films which share superficially similar concepts with Unknown – but which delivered a far more engaging and exciting experience when I watched them.
Unknown isn’t without it’s moments of fun (Angry Neeson, for one, is a treat), but what I took away most from it was a feeling of nostalgia for much better movies.
I’m looking at you, Frantic.
* No, it doesn’t.