I won’t confirm or deny whether there’s a twist in the middle of Unknown that reframes everything that’s come before it. If I tell you definitively that there’s a plot-altering revelation ahead — thus encouraging you to guess what that is — something tells me you’ll see it coming.
So I’ll say nothing more on the matter. Instead I’ll describe the Hitchcock-ian set-up in which a mild-mannered scientist played by Liam Neeson finds himself shortly after arriving in Berlin for an international biotechnology conference. His name is Martin Harris, and he’s brought his wife Liz (January Jones) along for the trip. Only in the movies is a biologist’s wife this beautiful.
When the couple arrive at their posh hotel, Martin realizes he’s left his briefcase at the airport and jumps back into a taxi without saying a word to Liz. (In a bit of possibly misguided product placement, we see repeated shots of his Blackberry failing to get a signal by which he could tell his wife where he’s going.) The cab is driven by a Bosnian woman named Gina, played by Diane Kruger. Only in the movies are illegal-immigrant cabbies this beautiful.
Turns out Gina is the world’s worst driver, and she ends up taking them off a bridge and underwater. She manages to pull an unconscious Martin to the surface, but quickly disappears when the authorities converge on the accident scene.
The next thing Martin knows, he’s waking up in a hospital. He’s been in a coma for four days. He has almost no memory of the accident, and can recall just a few flashes of his own life. He knows his name and that he’s an American scientist, but at first he can’t even remember why he’s in Berlin. He had no ID on him when he arrived at the hospital, so there’s little to go on. When the hospital staff checks with the police, no one has reported a Martin Harris as missing.
Fortunately a television news report about the biotech conference activates much more of Martin’s memory. He’s quickly out of bed and racing towards the hotel, where he’s certain that his wife is worried sick about him. But he’s shocked to discover that another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris is already at the conference. Even worse, his wife Liz stands by the imposter, claiming to have never seen Neeson’s Martin Harris before.
Without any identification, with no one to vouch for him, and knowing that his own mind has been severely affected by the car accident, Martin questions his own sanity. Perhaps he’s latched onto the memories of another man’s life? But how?
Thus we have the classic Hitchcock hero: the innocent man who finds himself persecuted from all quarters by a nefarious conspiracy that only he (and possibly a trusting female sidekick) can see. After a nasty character attempts to drug and kidnap him, Martin retraces his steps to understand why he got in that taxi in the first place. He finds Gina and enlists her help, and the help of a former member of the East German secret police (Bruno Ganz), to find proof of his identity.
I’m pretty sure the storyline wouldn’t hold up well to a second viewing. I’m bugged by inconsistencies and plot contrivances. Why do the bad guys ruthlessly execute some of the people who get in their way while leaving others alive to escape? Why do they seemingly want to take Martin alive but later decide he must be killed? And it’s almost comical how many boneheaded moves they make during the movie’s climactic showdown.
Still, I enjoyed the ride well enough. I credit Neeson, whom you can easily imagine Alfred Hitchcock himself would have cast in one of his films. Neeson has a movie star’s charisma but carries himself with a gravitas that makes you believe in him even when he’s asked to spout the sort of action-star line that’d come off sounding laughable from a lesser actor.
“I remember how to kill you, asshole,” he snarls in a rare moment of triumph. And I bought it.