Despite its title, the formula for the Jaume Collet-Serra-directed thriller “Unknown” is hardly a new concept.
Start with one well-aged actor (Liam Neeson). Put him in a random European city (in this case Berlin). Add a little car-accident-induced amnesia. Sprinkle generously with chase scenes and explosions. Top with an unexpected plot twist. Bake for an hour and 49 minutes, and voila: Box office magic!
Neeson stars as Dr. Martin Harris, an American botanist who arrives with his lovely (and much younger) wife Elizabeth (Mad Men’s January Jones) in Berlin on a snowy November day for an international biotechnology summit.
Liz checks into the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, where the couple is staying, as Harris hops a cab back to the airport to retrieve some lost luggage.
En route to the airport, the female cabbie (Diane Kruger) swerves to miss a refrigerator that falls from the back of a truck a few car-lengths ahead. Chaos ensues. The cab spins out of control and plummets a few stories over a guardrail into the river below.
Harris is knocked unconscious. The driver manages to pull him to safety before fleeing the scene of the crash. (We later learn that she is an illegal immigrant from Bosnia.)
Harris awakens four days later at a German hospital, disoriented and with no identification. He convinces his doctor to allow him to check out of the hospital to seek out his wife, who he presumes will be worried sick and turning Berlin upside down looking for him.
He returns to the Adlon, where he is shocked to discover his wife seemingly has no recollection of him, and another man (Aiden Quinn) has not only cozied up to his wife, but has assumed his identity as Dr. Martin Harris.
The film follows Harris as he struggles to make sense of the situation and begins to question whether his memories are real or merely a trauma-induced delusion.
Along his journey to uncover the truth, Harris finds himself trailed by mysterious men. Alone and unable to find anyone to verify that he is the real Dr. Harris, he enlists the help of a former East German spy, a relic from the Cold War who now specializes in retrieving lost identities.
So “Unknown” isn’t exactly groundbreaking in either its storyline or its execution. It’s not going to be nominated for an Academy Award anytime soon. That being said, if you’re looking to kill a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, it’s a pretty decent flick, with some solid performances and nice balance of action and suspense that, if nothing else, should keep your attention for the duration.
And unlike many of its counterparts in the action-thriller genre, “Unknown” is propelled to its unexpected conclusion not by a seemingly incessant barrage of gunfights, car chases and fiery explosions (although it does have a few). There’s no campy romantic backstory, no nudity or gratuitous sex scenes.
Instead, “Unknown” is more of a “smart thriller,” driven by a plot rooted an age-old philosophical debate: How do our perceptions shape our reality?
As Harris puts it in one scene, “It’s like a war between knowing who you are and thinking you know who you are.”