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An American in Berlin loses his identity in this broody thriller

click to enlarge Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) wonders where he went.
  • Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) wonders where he went.

Suddenly, Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is having a very bad day. Upon checking into his Berlin hotel -- he's there with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), for a bio-chemistry conference -- he realizes he's left his briefcase at the airport. Then, the cab he hops crashes off a bridge and into the river. He wakes up in the hospital with some scrambled memories -- and after making it back to the hotel, discovers somebody else has become him!

There's another botanist at the conference who says he's Martin Harris, and he's got the adoring Elizabeth on his arm to boot. The first Mr. Harris causes a scene: "I was in an accident! I was in a coma! I didn't know where I was!" Naturally, he's booted out of the hotel.

Lacking any identification, Harris commences to prove he is who he thinks he is. He finds his cab driver, an illegal Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger), and takes a sympathetic nurse's suggestion to see a man who "finds" things out. Meanwhile, something must be fishy, because Harris is being stalked by a dark SUV. (Prompting that existential thriller query: If I've ceased to exist, why are these mean guys following me?)

Jaume Collet-Serra's broody action thriller Unknown is set entirely in Berlin, and benefits from that city's grime and wintry weather. The film is in the canon of classic Hitchcock -- the falsely accused man on the run while trying to prove his innocence. It lacks Hitchcock's finesse and wit, but hurtles along nicely on plenty of narrative intrigue and a solid performance from Neeson. Its central puzzle holds up well, rare in such popcorn thrillers.

I was less enamored of the clichéd room-smashing brawls and high-speed car chases. (I believed Martin Harris was who he said he was, but was left puzzled how an academic botanist could be such a skilled evasive driver while speeding backward through a major European city.) Such scenes felt unnecessary -- perhaps shoehorned in to juice up a trailer -- though action fans will enjoy the usual car explosions and people falling off buildings.

I just wanted Harris to spend more time with Jürgen, the former Stasi officer-turned-private detective whom the nurse suggested. This feeble yet clearly very dangerous man is portrayed with a rickety, sly sharpness by Bruno Ganz, who memorably played Adolf Hitler in 2004's Downfall (and countless subsequent YouTube mash-up rants). While Harris freaks out, blusters and gets in fist fights, Jürgen quietly wonders: "Why would they want to take your place?" Unlocking a mystery requires not a spectacular car chase, it seems, but simply the right question.

 

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Liam Neeson, January Jones, Bruno Ganz and Diane Kruger

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