Liam Neeson looks like the new Harrison Ford in “Orphan” director Jaume Collet-Serra’s movie “Unknown,” a lukewarm amnesia thriller set in Berlin about a biophysicist who loses his memory in a car accident. The people who produced “Unknown”(** out of ****) probably never saw a potboiler called “Frantic” that Ford made in 1988 for notorious Polish helmer Roman Polanski. Ford played an American doctor whose wife is kidnapped when he attends a medical conference in Paris. Predictably, the French police are too incompetent to help. Instead, Ford turns to a young single girl who lives on the fringe. She guides him through the Parisian underworld to find the kidnappers. In “Unknown,” Neeson plays an American doctor who loses his memory after his taxi lurches off a bridge into a river and he nearly drowns. The female taxi driver at the wheel when the accident occurred saves his life. Afterward, she vanishes without a trace. Neeson spends four days in a coma as a result of the accident. When he recovers, he leaves the hospital against his doctor’s advice. Neeson gets the surprise of his life when he finds his wife. First, she doesn’t recognize him. Second, another man is posing as her husband! Third, he discovers that his identity has been stolen! Neeson relies on an illegal immigrant to navigate Berlin so he can elude the omnipotent villains. There is as much Robert Ludlum as there is Alfred Hitchcock in this PG-13 exercise in suspense and intrigue. “Frantic” fell frantically flat, and “Unknown” fares moderately better. Anybody hoping that “Unknown” would rival Neeson’s earlier actioneer “Taken” should prepare themselves for a letdown. Despite a number of narrative surprises and Neeson’s sincere performance as a hero caught up in a vast web of conspiracy, “Unknown” lacks the charisma and catharsis that made “Taken” such a crackerjack thriller.
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson of “Batman Begins”) and his wife Elizabeth (January Jones of “Anger Management”) arrive in snowy Berlin for a biotechnology summit. The wealthy Prince Shada (Mido Hamada of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”) and Professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch of “Black Book”) are sponsoring the summit that will yield a scientific innovation to halt world hunger. Security is tight because terrorists have tried to kill Prince Shada. When Harris and his wife show up at the motel, he discovers he is missing his brief case. Martin leaves Elizabeth to register at the front desk, while he catches a cab back to the airport to retrieve the case. The briefcase contains Harris’ passport and other valuables. The trip back to the airport turns out to be a little more exciting than our hero thought. A truck transporting a refrigerator loses the appliance.Gina (Diane Kruger of “Inglourious Basterds”) , Harris’ cab driver, swerves adroitly to avoid the tumbling fridge. She careens the cab recklessly, crashes through a bridge and plunges into a river. Gina smashes the rear window of the cab and rescues Harris. Harris lies in a coma that for four days. When he awakens, Harris is desperate to reach his wife. Unfortunately, our hero has no identification. Worse, he is suffering from a case of amnesia.
Eventually, Harris recovers his wits sufficiently to discharge himself from the hospital. Imagine his surprise when he walks into the conference and learns that another man, Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn of “Legends of the Fall”), is impersonating him. Harris erupts with fury initially but then has the good sense to back off before the Berlin police arrest him. He returns to the hospital, and an assassin tries to murder him after killing a nurse. Miraculously, Harris escapes from his assailants and searches for the cab driver who can prove his identity. The complication here is that Gina is an illegal Bosnian immigrant without a passport. Moreover, she wants nothing to do with Harris. Later, she changes her mind and lets him shower at her cramped apartment. Things change quickly as a ruthless pair of killers show up to silence him. Harris hires a former Stasi officer-turned-private investigator, Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz of “Downfall”), to help him sort things out. Harris is flabbergasted that he cannot prove his identity to anybody and the language barrier doesn’t mitigate his madness. He relies on Gina to get him around the city and translate for him.
“Unknown” is not as good as Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” but it far surpasses his anemic “House of Wax” remake. The surprise-laden screenplay by “Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde”scribe Oliver Butcher and “Killing Streets” scenarist Stephen Comwell, derived from French author Didier Van Cauwelaert’s novel “Out of My Head,” strains believability at every turn. The Neeson character behaves like an imbecile when he loses his briefcase at the airport and later Professor Bressler is just as idiotic when he allows a woman to take his laptop away from him so she can copy his ultra-secret files. Eventually, when the assassins come after our hero, they make it obvious that they are after him. Our hero suspects that he is being shadowed in the Berlin subway. His suspicions are confirmed when a bespectacled stranger pursues him at a run. Mind you, Harris’ assailant could have quietly sidled up beside him and killed the hero without arousing his suspicions. Collet-Serra and his writer spend most of their 113 minutes trying to distract us from the obvious. The surprise ending raises more questions than it resolves, and you’ll feel cheated instead of astonished. Ultimately, “Unknown” amounts to a half-baked synthesis of “The Bourne Identity” and “Shutter Island.”