Berlin is no longer the entertaining cesspool of espionage and political intrigue that it was when Cold War operatives like George Smiley and Harry Palmer skulked its shadowy streets. But in the new movie Unknown, the once-divided metropolis provides a sufficiently sinister environment for Martin Harris, a visiting American who's as dangerously out of his element as Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins was in the postwar Vienna of The Third Man. Although let me apologize in advance for mentioning that movie in the vicinity of this one.
Harris (Liam Neeson), a world-famous Chicago botanist, has flown to Berlin to attend an international biotech conference with his sleek blonde wife, Elizabeth (January Jones). Arriving at their deluxe hotel, he realizes that his briefcase—idiotically containing his passport and all other forms of identification—has been left behind at the airport. Without saying a word to Elizabeth, who's already checking in, he hops in a taxi to go back and reclaim it. As you'd hope, everything that could possibly go wrong now begins to do so.
The movie has a Hitchcockian complement of plot twists and fake-outs. (If only it also had Hitchcock.) En route to the airport, there's a traffic pileup, and Harris' taxi goes sailing off a bridge into the River Spree. His cabbie, a Bosnian immigrant named Gina (Diane Kruger, possibly the least Balkan of actresses), pulls her unconscious passenger out of the water to safety, then disappears. Four days later Harris awakes from a coma in a hospital, where a doctor natters on about memory loss and disorientation. There's a television in the room, on which Harris sees a news report about the big biotech conference, and a shot of the hotel into which he has still failed to check. Fleeing the hospital, he goes there, spots his wife in a salon and approaches her. She greets him with the words, "Do I know you?" Then she introduces her husband, the world-famous botanist Martin Harris, who looks for all the world like Aidan Quinn. The real Harris implores the hotel security chief to look him up online, which he does—and pulls up a photo of, yes, Aidan Quinn. (How this might have been arranged we can leave to the puzzlement of anyone who's ever done Internet research.)
Now things get really hectic. Harris finds himself being stalked by a vicious assassin (grim-lipped Olivier Schneider). Fortuitously, he makes a connection with a crusty investigator, a former East German spy named Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), who believes his wild story. Then Gina the cabbie re-enters the picture; she sort of believes Harris, too. Unbelievably, she also allows this virtual stranger to crash in her tiny apartment. But not for long—very soon they're on the run, pursued by killers for reasons Harris can't begin to fathom. Also arriving in the story are an Arab prince (Mido Hamada), who funds biotech projects; a pioneering German scientist named Bressler (Sebastian Koch, of The Lives of Others); and a heinous plot, a mysterious book code, an international murder bureau, a ticking bomb, and identity games that really do keep you guessing (but not, alas, as long as they should). As a final complication, there's Harris' longtime friend Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), who arrives toward the end to make himself useful and, let's say, fails to do so.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (whose 2009 Orphan was a nifty little horror flick) keeps all of this moving along at a snappy pace. Even the bad-guy beat-downs and the inevitable car chase through the icy streets of Berlin are excitingly staged, as such things go; and an assault in the hospital has a nice compact nastiness. Plot holes are a minor distraction in this sort of film (the preposterous ending here is more of a problem), but what really keeps the movie from being a solid genre gem is its star. Neeson's expertise at projecting inner turbulence and fine emotional shadings overbalances this pulpy tale, and as has been the case in some previous films (even Taken, I'd say), his air of earnest contemplation grows dull. More surprising than any of the other rub-outs on view is the way it smothers the movie.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.