Biotechnology researcher Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is in what Ned Flanders would call “a dilly of a pickle.” He and his wife Liz (January Jones) arrive in a country they know almost nothing about and both speak very little of the native language. In haste, Dr. Harris leaves behind a briefcase at the airport terminal containing his passport and photo identification. Taking prompt action, he hops into a taxicab by himself to go retrieve it. But he could not have foretold that the taxi would fall off a bridge and into a river. After surviving a disaster that could have easily killed him, he approaches his wife only to find that she no longer recognizes him. Talk about misplacing your whole life all in the name of science.
“Unknown” is a film that has a promising first act and an engrossing final third. The intriguing premise introduced above is put to mildly good use and all the while, the audience is just as befuddled as Neeson’s character is. We want to solve the mystery just as much as he does. But that may be where my main criticism comes into play: as interested as I was at the beginning and toward the end, most of what takes place in between feels a bit needless. Clues are not scattered around the setting as in most mysteries where the hero has to piece them together one by one. More accurately, this story is about getting to the bottom of the “how did I get here and why does this guy think he is me and why does nobody believe me” situation he is trapped in.
Dr. Harris wakes up to find that he suffered a damaging blow to the head and has been under medical attention for four days. He immediately becomes worried for Liz, seeing as she has been deserted in Berlin all this time. As luck would have it, he catches her at the biotechnology conference he was supposed to attend. But to his astonishment, she is in the arms of another man claiming to be Dr. Martin Harris (this one is played by Aidan Quinn). The twist: this guy has proof of identity, papers, and even family photos. Neeson has none handy.
There are many scenes like this early on where he tries to plead his story and the imposter one-ups him around every corner by default. One of the more engaging variations on the way this plays out is when Dr. Harris visits the lab of a professor he was scheduled to work with and the fake has stolen his position. He tries convincing the professor he is the real deal by bringing up the precise details of a conversation they had over the phone a week in advance. Curiously, the imposter simultaneously recites the same facts verbatim while the professor reacts with utter bewilderment. Predictably, the one we follow loses this battle, because nobody can possibly compete when the other guy flashes his persuasive I.D. badge.
So the movie contains an undercurrent involving identity theft, but the mystery surely lies deeper than that. Sure, he could have doctored the family photos, the driver’s license and the passport and somehow gotten away with it. But why do Harris’s close friends, colleagues and even his wife suddenly flock to the new guy and dismiss the real one? How is the phony even aware of Dr. Harris’s recent history, let alone fully knowledgeable about even his most trivial experiences? What exactly does he want with the man’s identity?
But Dr. Harris has not forgotten everything that happened in the hours before the accident. Through the taxi agency, he is able to track down his since-canned driver Gina (Diane Kruger), who aids him in solving the puzzle and allows him a temporary place to stay. His residence soon puts both of their lives in jeopardy once assassins show up at her apartment building looking for him. Since this is working on movie logic, Dr. Harris is skilled enough at fighting to outsmart all of the trained killers and escape with Gina.
Despite some astronomical implausibilities sprinkled here and there, “Unknown” boils down to a mostly entertaining thriller. Almost good enough to where I can give it the benefit of the doubt for the average middle section. Unfortunately my thumb is very, very slightly in the down position mostly because the middle made me finally perceive the overall length of the film. My attention wandered every now and then, plus it could have been trimmed and cut to make it seem slightly less dry. I guess that sometimes with my thrillers, I want to sink my teeth right into the heart of the issue at hand.
Note: Isn’t it a little odd that there is a twenty-five year age difference between Liam Neeson and January Jones even though they are supposed to be playing husband-and-wife roles. Then again, this IS the 21st century I suppose.