But your face is familiar


On the run in Berlin, with only one person to count on: This is a recipe for an action-suspense movie.

On the run in Berlin, with only one person to count on: This is a recipe for an action-suspense movie.

Rated 3.0

Some movies are like those little puzzles that used to come on key chains or in cereal boxes, where you fit a bunch of seemingly random fragments together to form some little trinket. You worked the puzzle, not because the end result was so useful or beautiful, but just for the pleasure and satisfaction of seeing how the pieces fit together. Unknown is that kind of movie.

Liam Neeson and January Jones play American scholar Martin Harris and his wife Liz, first seen flying into Berlin for an international conference on biotechnology. Before the deadly phrase “international conference on biotechnology” has a chance to glaze over our eyes, things happen. First, the Harrises zip off in an airport taxi, leaving an attaché case lying forgotten on the curbside luggage cart. Director Jaume Collet-Serra tells us with a looming close-up of the neglected carry-on item that this is a Very Important Event, and that the carrying-on is only beginning.

At the hotel, while Liz dickers with the desk clerk over their suite, Martin suddenly misses his briefcase and dives into another taxi to dash back to the airport and retrieve it.

Martin’s failure to poke his head in the lobby and say, “Honey, I have to run back to the airport” will have momentous consequences. Not five minutes later, in the sort of Rube Goldberg accident peculiar to movies like this, a runaway refrigerator sends Martin’s taxi plunging into the River Spree. The driver—a good-looking blonde who turns out to be Diane Kruger—swims free of the sinking wreck, but goes back to drag the unconscious Martin out the taxi’s shattered back window and pull him safely to shore before melting away into the crowd. Her failure to hang around and tell the cops where she picked him up—or simply to swim away and let the poor bastard drown—will also have major consequences (especially for characters played by actors with less international cachet than Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger).

Martin regains consciousness in a Berlin hospital, where he learns that he’s been in a coma for four days, a sort of Johann Doe because he was brought in with no identification. Most of what led up to the accident is a foggy blur to Martin, but he remembers who he is, why he’s in Berlin, and where he and his wife are supposed to be staying. But when he goes to the hotel and finds Liz, his relief is short-lived; she tells the hotel staff she’s never seen this man before in her life, and she produces her “real” husband (Aidan Quinn) to prove it.

In short order, Martin finds this new Martin’s picture on his Web page and in photos of his and Liz’s honeymoon in Paris. When Martin goes to his host in Berlin, professor Bressler (Sebastian Koch), whom he has met only through e-mail, he finds “Martin B” there ahead of him. As Martin, in mounting desperation, begins rattling off all he knows about Bressler, and what they wrote in their e-mails, he finds Martin B parroting the same information, verbatim and in unison with him, the two of them trying to shout each other down.

In retrospect, that moment is the first clue to the ultimate solution of Unknown, but at the time it only has you scratching your head wondering how they’ll ever work this all out. To its credit, the script by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell (based, apparently not very closely, on a French novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert) keeps you guessing right up to the climax, and the story as it develops is satisfying, if not entirely plausible.

To detail any of the questions that pop into your head on your way out of the lobby would be to risk giving away too much. Suffice it to say that the holes are there, and that Unknown is the kind of movie where the hero is cast adrift in a city with no money, no ID, and no knowledge of the language beyond “bitte” and “danke schön,” yet within a day he’s fleeing assassins by driving backward against traffic and down sidewalks without attracting the attention of police—and with a gorgeous blonde (Kruger) riding shotgun and navigating for him.

You suspect that, as usual, the beleaguered hero’s only friend will turn out to be behind it all. Well, yes, sort of, but not exactly “as usual.” That’s one of the twists, and part of the fun.