It’s Like a Europeanized Total Recall

Movie Review: Unknown (2011)
Summary: A man awakens from a coma, only to discover that someone has taken on his identity.
Spoilers: none

In Unknown, “Dr. Martin Harris” (Liam Neeson) arrives in Berlin for a biotechnology lecture with wife “Elizabeth” (January Jones). Arriving at their hotel, Dr. Harris goes to check his bags and feels that something may be missing. After heading back to the airport in search of his briefcase, he is in an accident that nearly claims his life.

Waking up with amnesia four days later with no identification, the doctors have been unable to identify him. When he leaves the hospital and finds his wife at the conference, she doesn’t recognize him, nor does anyone else. And there is another “Dr. Martin Harris” (Aidan Quinn) taking his place. He is ejected from the hotel, narrowly avoiding arrest, and finds himself on a quest to track down that strange and mysterious woman who saved his life after the cab accident.

After running up against dead-end after dead-end in trying to establish his identity, Harris soon finds himself the target of unknown assailants that do more to confuse and terrify him than the situation that got him where he is.

He is able to locate “Gina” (Diane Kruger), the woman who saved his life, but must thereafter put together the rest of the earth-shattering, amnesia-accompanying mystery that has thrown his life into a tailspin of madness. It’s like a Europeanized, Uni-planetary version of Total Recall without the three-titted alien girl and Martian techno bar where people symbiotically co-exist.

Neeson, who speaks like he’s reading emphatically while doing voiceover work for a child’s animated show, is like some others in the film in that the lines delivered don’t always have the impact intended. And as with certain scenes, the exchanges of dialog often transition poorly into each other.

Kruger’s performance is the only compelling one. Even Frank Langella who plays “Rodney Cole” can’t slip indubitably into his role as Harris’ long-time friend. Some of the stand-ins with hotel security are more convincing. There really are no exceptional performances in Unknown, partly because this is not director Jaume Collet-Serra’s finest hour, but partly because the material we have to work with barely gets around to being suspenseful until it starts to wrap things up near the ending. Up till that point, the story barely manages to satisfactorily keep your attention.

Neverminding the usual Hollywood habit of having some guy throw any old amount of money at a cab driver and then hurriedly get out, and neverminding using the same cell phone that didn't work before, and (remarkably) dries out and works perfectly after being submerged in freezing water, there are a few turns in the story that almost get things going.

Harris says to the physician: “Do you know what it’s like to go insane, doctor? It’s like a war between knowing who you are and being told who you are.” Now there is a thoughtful granule. This is followed by Harris’ having to fight to stay alive in the hospital. So things seem to really be heating up.

Then we’re back to square one, or perhaps we never left it because when Harris woke up in the hospital and had no ID, he still had enough cash to get around. Why no ID then? Wouldn’t he have that with him? And after running into an ally, “Ernst Jürgen” (Bruno Ganz), he tells him that for a brief moment, he became convinced that he was, in fact, insane due to the trauma from the accident. But how could he have ever been since he knew he had on him a gift from his father, a book, along with the cash?

When Harris meets Gina and goes home with her, she gets comfortable—as in, walking around without a bra under her t-shirt comfortable. He decides to take a shower and get comfy himself. I’d just be wanting to sit down and collect my thoughts and cry, being thankful to be alive as a nameless wonder this far from home, but that’s me. The film had other plans.

As with most amnesia exploitation movies, the amnesia tends to behave rather strangely; it goes way out of its way to remove every single solitary identifier that could tell the victim anything helpful about himself. That must be considered a little bit too friendly of a story-builder on which to base a movie, if you ask me.

We get to find out near the end of the film what has happened, but things are no better for it, not when this involves thugs and stomach punches to go with the antagonist filling the protagonist and everyone else in via a history lesson on what happened and why. And Harris’ set of skills doesn’t appear to match what we are told his profession was.

Despite some burning suspense and a roller-coaster plot that will throw the audience before making things “click,” I'm afraid it’s just not enough.


Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson “Dr. Martin Harris,” Diane Kruger “Gina,” January Jones “Elizabeth Harris,” Aidan Quinn “Martin B.,” Bruno Ganz “Ernst Jürgen,” Frank Langella “Rodney Cole,” Sebastian Koch “Professor Bressler,” Olivier Schneider “Smith,” Stipe Erceg “Jones,” Rainer Bock “Herr Strauss,” Mido Hamada “Prince Shada,” Clint Dyer “Biko”
Genre: Drama / Mystery / Thriller