Biologist Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his lovely wife Liz (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for an important conference. Realising he left something back at the airport, Martin grabs a ride with cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger), but a car crash pitches them into the river. Although Gina saves Martin’s life, he remains in a coma for four days and awakens to find his world turned upside down. His wife does not recognise him, no-one believes he is who he claims to be, and another Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) has taken his place. Desperate for answers, Martin searches for Gina, only to find himself trailed by murderous strangers.
Produced by action maestro Joel Silver and based on a French novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, this slight but likeable German co-production is more or less a Twilight Zone episode writ large. While the setup brings memories of the Roger Moore fantasy thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), the unfolding twists pitch Unknown a lot closer to the underrated Cipher (2002) and the overrated Total Recall (1990). Audiences expecting star Liam Neeson to reprise his craggy action hero running amuck in Europe act from Taken (2008) may be slightly disappointed given the film is caught midway between taut thrills and cerebral musings on the intangibility of memories and the fragile, mutable nature of identity itself. The latter underlined by a darkly comic sequence wherein both Martin Harrises stammer identical anecdotes before the befuddled Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch).
Jaume Collet-Sera, better known for his offbeat horror movies House of Wax (2005) and Orphan (2009), has a sleek visual style but slack pacing ensures the plot merely chugs along through Martin’s initial nightmarish discoveries before springing to life with some outlandish, but endearingly loopy twists and briskly efficient car chases and action scenes. Aside from the difficulty in accepting glamorous Diane Kruger as a Bosnian cab driver (most cabbies look more like Freddy Krueger), the film is actually well cast. Mad Men star January Jones brings some of her glacial chic to an ambiguous role and the great Bruno Ganz appears as a terminally ill former East German Stasi officer turned private detective. He shares a splendid scene with Frank Langella as Martin’s visiting colleague, so congenial you just know he is hiding something. And truth be told Ms. Kruger imbues her heroine with likeable pluck and humanity. A nice touch in the script, co-written by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell, is how Gina’s status as an illegal immigrant allows her the contacts to help Martin slip seamlessly into Berlin’s underworld, thus refuting her boss’ claim that immigrants have ruined the city. Also amusing is a gag referencing all those memory-loss themed sitcoms and cartoons wherein a bump on the head transforms Neeson back into the lethal killing machine viewers were first expecting him to be.