Unknown is the sort of suspense film that raises more questions than it ever is able to answer. Why would someone lug his laptop containing valuable international secrets to a party and then leave it where anyone could snatch it? Why do cellphones just happen to go dead at the most inopportune times? And why is pretty January Jones, who is an effective cog in the fabulous Mad Men machinery, such a stiff on the big screen?
There are other, bigger questions to ponder, but to ask them gives away too many of what the filmmakers probably consider thrilling and unexpected secrets. Thing is, the events and outcome of Unknown, which stars Liam Neeson as a man desperately seeking his identity after a car accident, are less unexpected than its creators hope.
Neeson stars as American Martin Harris, who with his wife Liz (Jones) travels to snowy Berlin for a biotechnology conference. Upon arriving at the hotel, he realizes his briefcase has been left behind at the airport and jumps into a taxi to rush back and retrieve it. On the way, there’s an accident, and the cab plunges over the side of a bridge. Martin is rescued by the brave driver (Diane Kruger of Inglourious Basterds), who saves his life but not his memory. He wakes up in the hospital thinking he knows who he is. The doctor warns that head trauma can be tricky and recommends staying put, but Martin rushes back to the hotel, worried about his wife. But Liz doesn’t recognize or believe him. Worse, another man (Aidan Quinn) is possessively by her side, insisting that he is Martin Harris.
As Martin (or whoever he is) wanders around the city trying to figure out what has happened to him, the film’s wet, chilly atmosphere is wonderfully bleak and inhospitable, evoking the lingering ominous presence of Cold War oppression. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) pulls off a couple of good chase scenes, the best of which involves a drugged and bound Neeson trying to escape a mysterious would-be killer. Neeson is a solidly believable presence as a reluctant man of action, and Bruno Ganz (The Reader) is terrific as a former Stasi officer-turned-private investigator whom Martin hires to help him.
But plausibility is always a concern when you’re trying to be clever and tie together the threads of an old-school thriller, especially if you’re aiming for a comparison or two to Hitchcock, and relying too much on coincidence and convenience ultimately cheapens the intriguing parts of the film. Unknown is never boring, and Collet-Serra mostly keeps up a lively pace, but he doesn’t do the movie any favors with the flat, dull way he films the scene in which we finally learn what’s going on. Unknown has its moments, but ultimately it’s as forgettable as Martin’s identity.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Screenwriters: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell. Based on the book Out of my Head by Didier Cauwelaert.
Producers: Leonard Goldberg, Andrew Rona, Joel Silver.
A Warner Bros. studios release. Running time: 109 minutes. Some intense scenes of action and violence, brief sexual content. Opens Friday Feb. 18 at: area theaters