Life as you know it can shatter and change in just a few short minutes — ain’t that the truth. For Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) in “Unknown,” the shock comes twofold: Although he can remember his own identity and life prior to his taxi accident, no one else recognizes him — not even his wife.
There goes the doctor, running over to his beloved Elizabeth (January Jones) in the lobby of the Berlin hotel where they had been staying — he runs over to tell her that he’s been in an accident but he’s all right. That’s when she impales his heart with the pointy end of a blue icicle stare and says: “Do I know you?” A second later she’s joined by her husband, “Dr. Martin Harris” (Aidan Quinn), and they walk off together in cozy camaraderie.
What the hell just happened? The real Dr. Harris has the rest of the movie to find out, and the more he delves into the mystery of his lost identity, the deeper he wades in a purgatory of black suspicion and bottomless fear.
“Unknown” is a surprising gem of a film from a genre that’s suffered lately in the hands of the expensive and irreverent “Tourist,” or the expensive and hamfisted “Shutter Island.” Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (best known for “House of Wax,” a horror pic starring Paris Hilton) has a distinct feel for mystery and intrigue; he favors a light touch and an abundance of nuance, and has a flair for dispensing information one tantalizing spoonful at a time.
“Unknown” is adult fare — the seasoned cast is reticent, the car-chase scenes are masterfully choreographed but noise-free, bombs explode with elegant precision and minimum casualty. Neeson — whose name is synonymous these days with high production values — frets and runs and wields guns with credible unease and bewilderment.
Martin is a botany professor, and had been attending a biotech conference in Berlin. A forgotten briefcase containing passport and papers sends the doc. on a solo hunt through the Berlin streets while Elizabeth stays behind in their hotel. That’s the last moment of normalcy for Martin — four days later he wakes up in a hospital stripped of everything that made up his life.
But once the trappings are gone, the raw man emerges. Even as he pretty much gives up on reclaiming Elizabeth, his professional position and a suburban mansion back in the United States, Martin wants the world to know that he’s really himself and no other.
Aiding him (albeit reluctantly) in his quest is Gina (Diane Kruger), who has pretty much become the Euro filmmaker’s choice for action woman with a twist — i.e., the ambience of a good upbringing and lots of violin lessons. Gina had been driving the fateful cab that tipped into a river with Martin inside, and when he goes looking for her later, she has ditched the road for a waitress job.
Gina warns him that he’s “being watched” and his only chance of survival is a speedy exit from Berlin. But she has a knack for materializing out of the blue and firing bullets at the bad guys just when things get dicey, and also knows the right man to go to in this sort of situation.
Enter Ernst Jurgen (the totally spot-on Bruno Ganz), a wisecracking ex-Stasi agent with an appropriately guttural accent and a convincing hatred for imperialist capitalism. Ernst openly longs for the days when East Berlin was firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain, and he is unperturbed by Martin’s tale of conspiracy and identity theft.
“We Germans, we’re experts at forgetting,” says Ernst, in the tone of someone who’s used to carrying three or four passports at once. He seems bemused and slightly irritated by the enormous importance Martin attaches to who he “really” is. In Ernst’s eyes, Martin is a typically spoiled, self-absorbed American. Likable, maybe, but very typical.
It’s Martin’s conversations with Ernst and Gina that provide the best moments. The preposterousness of the plot is never really fixed or resolved and there are holes in the logic large enough to pass an Alsatian. But all of that ceases to matter — “Unknown” isn’t competing with the “Bourne” series here: Its real rival is Hitchcock. There’s a luxe, mid-20th-century Hollywood sheen, enhanced by the presence of the two leading actresses, both high-waisted, glacial blondes with seductive red lips and impenetrable self-control. They permeate the screen like some rich, exotic perfume, and the allure is laced with nostalgia.