Highly reminiscent of the Bourne movies, Liam Neeson (who proved his action prowess in Taken) is Dr. Martin Harris, a biotech professor of global renown. He comes to Berlin with his wife Elizabeth (January Jones) to present at a conference. A little rattled by nerves, he only notices he has left his briefcase on the airport luggage cart once their taxi arrives at the posh hotel where they will be staying. Leaving his wife to check in at the front desk, he immediately grabs another cab and heads back to the airport. However minutes later, after a wayward refrigerator falls off the back of a truck, Harris is submerged in the Spree River and unconscious. Only the quick actions of his cab driver Gina (Diane Kruger) manage to keep him alive.
Harris opens his eyes in a hospital bed and learns he has been in a coma for four days. The first thing he wants to know is the whereabouts of his spouse. He is also surprised to learn his disappearance has not been registered with the authorities. Dashing back to the hotel, he meets with further frustration when he is introduced to the real Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) and his wife denies having ever met him. With security threatening to have him arrested, he eventually complies and starts believing he may be mistaken about his identity. Yet who is he? Determined to uncover the truth and unable to recall the details leading to the accident, he begins a frantic investigation into his own life.
All too frequently action/thrillers neglect the art of pacing—audiences need to breathe, or they simply become desensitized to an unrelenting barrage of bullets and blasts. Unknown is a thriller with lots of action, but hands its viewers quiet pauses, albeit sometimes during moments of awfully tense conversation. One such instance occurs when two aging secret agents (Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella), who were once separated by the Iron Curtain, find themselves together exchanging chitchat while we know full well a serious confrontation is eminent. This scene is a potent reminder of how many other movies are relying far too heavily on technological tricks to keep the paying public engaged.
That isn’t to say there isn’t a generous dose of violence here as well. Knife fights and an assortment of altercations result in deaths from broken necks, falls from buildings, explosions and other miscellaneous incidents. Suicide from a self-administered poison and scenes of death induced from unknown medical substances are depicted. The film also features some very dangerous driving. (I must admit these car chase sequences through German streets are thoroughly stunning, and Neeson confirmed in interviews that digital effects were not employed.) Finally, while sensuality isn’t the core of this film, some flashbacks show a sexually engaged couple in a shower (no explicit nudity is seen) and sexual sounds are heard through a wall in another scene. Profanities are mild and infrequent.
Sadly, violence and sexual content (albeit brief) keep this film from gaining full approval for teen viewing. Still, an intelligent script from relatively unknown writers under the helm of a relatively unknown director combines with strong performances to create an artistically solid effort that should satisfy political thriller fans.