Ah, memory, ‘tis a fickle thing. It’s the basis of our identity, yet is malleable and ephemeral. It only takes a taxicab to swerve off a bridge into a river in Berlin and poof – your memory is gone! At least, such is the case for Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), a biochemist attending a conference with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones). Upon waking in the hospital following the accident Martin recalls only fragments of his life (a series of PG erotic images of Elizabeth that look like they were taken with the Hipstamic App). These fragments are enough to piece together enough to find her, only to discover another man has replaced him and she has no idea who he is. And so begins Martin’s quest to uncover his past, enlisting the help of an illegal Bosnian refugee (Diane Kruger) and former Stasi officer (Bruno Gantz). Natch.
Though the buzz around Unknown was that it was going to be Taken 2, the film is quite different. It bizarrely opens off with a long shot of clouds, slowly tracking to inside a plane where Martin watches Elizabeth sleep (bizarrely, in a poncho – who puts January Jones in a poncho?). Is this really the start of an action packed thriller? Well, no, as Unknown reveals itself to be something else entirely. Starting off with a film noir feel (complete with neon signs lighting the dark streets of Berlin, cigarettes and harsh vertical shadows across Diane Kruger’s face) the film eventually evolves into the thriller one expects: car chases, explosions and January Jones loses that poncho for Prada. While this may seem indicative of a script unsure of its own identity, this shift is cohesive with the rest of the film. Without spoiling the grand reveal, as Martin changes so does the film, changing in tone and pace as his memories return. As Martin becomes the man he once was, the film becomes what we expect of it (and what we’ve come to expect of Liam Neeson).
While this structural defense may seem like a stretch to some, there is no denying the secondary characters hold Unknown together. Bruno Ganz reprises a fallen angel role (oh yes, that is a Der Himmel über Berlin comparison) as Ernest Jürgen, the only person who believes Martin. Frank Langella as Rodney Cole makes you wonder why he wasn’t cast along with Hollywood’s other septuagenarians in Red. And even the near speechless thugs are played by the likes of Stipe Erceg (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex).
Unknown is no Taken, which surely will disappoint some. But if you let yourself forget and not make comparisons you’ll find you just might lose yourself in it.
Kiva Reardon is a freelance film reviewer and blogger based in Toronto.