Anything can disappear in a New York minute -- that’s a lesson we learn all too often. With this theme in mind, the thriller Unknown focuses on a horticulture professor who travels to Germany to be part of a biotech conference. Unfortunately, he is soon denied his identity by his wife and finds himself defenseless and distraught.
Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones, Mad Men) appear to be a lovey-dovey, hand-holding couple on the plane to Germany and on their cab ride to their posh hotel. Once the luggage gets unloaded, Martin notices his briefcase -- with his passport and other papers inside -- is missing. He grabs a cab so fast he doesn’t have time to alert Liz at the reservation desk. His cell has no service, but that doesn’t matter, for moments later his cab becomes involved in a serious car wreck. Although the vehicle plunges into a frozen river, Gina (Diane Kruger, Mr. Nobody), the quick-thinking cabbie, manages to get out of her seat and pull Martin from the car. Hint -- this is the first implausible incident in the film.
Days later, Martin wakes up from a coma. Still uncertain who he is and with no ID, more days pass until he begins to gather clues and figure out his identity. He eventually makes his way to the hotel where a big reception is underway for conference attendees. When Martin manages to barge his way into the room -- followed by security -- he approaches Liz. She not only denies he’s her husband, she introduces him to Martin Harris ((Aidan Quinn, Flipped).
Thrown out on the street with no money or ID, Martin must start from the moment his world changed -- that dip in the frozen river. He finds Gina, who wants nothing to do with him because she’s an illegal hiding out. But when Martin informs her men are trying to kill him, she can’t resist his pleas.
If there’s one thing Neeson can play well, it’s a man who will work to his death to solve a mystery and stay alive against all obstacles. We saw this in his Taken character, Bryan Mills, a former spy who must go to Europe and rescue his kidnapped daughter. Because Neeson is so good as Martin in Unknown, and as a result of so many twists and turns in the movie, viewers are pretty much left in suspicion throughout this film.
Much of the action here resembles that in Taken. There are numerous car chases – too cliché and too many -- suspicious men everywhere who “might” be hunting Martin and too many convenient, easy solutions to Martin’s numerous problems.
January Jones underplays Liz; most of her role is staring and smiling (probably a script problem more than deficient acting). Kruger is excellent as the confused, frightened but sympathetic woman who could probably never refuse a sad puppy appearing on her doorstep.
Two other actors portray intriguing characters that keep this movie from having a sagging middle. Bruno Ganz (The Reader) plays Jurgen, an ex-Stasi officer desperate for detective work but actually good at his job. Maybe too good, as Martin discovers when he hires Jurgen to help him get his identity back. Rodney (Frank Langella, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) is Martin’s colleague back in the states who can ID Martin, but when he arrives in Germany the situation becomes more severe.
The movie features a very clichéd plot, including the bomb threat involving a foreign head of state. Yet it’s still intriguing and quite intense because of the fast pace and keen cinematography of Flavio Martinez Labiano (Bones). And with so few movies worth watching in the theatre these days, Unknown, while not terrific, seems a good bet.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “PG-13” for intense sequences of action violence and strong language.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.