Review: 'Unknown'

(Two-and-a-half stars)

Will the real Dr. Martin Harris please stand up? Identity theft kicks it up a notch in "Unknown," a not-bad thriller starring Liam Neeson. If that sounds like faint praise, it is, but at least this overgrown "B"-movie tickles the brain just a tad, unlike Neeson's lunkheaded but blazingly popular Euro-thriller from two years back, "Taken."

Neeson plays Harris ... or does he? Yes, it's that sort of movie. In Berlin to speak at a biotechnology summit, the doctor runs an errand away from his wife and takes an unscheduled plunge off an overpass. Awakening from a four-day coma, Harris experiences memory loss and what may or may not be severe cognitive confusion. When he attempts to step back into his responsibilities, he finds his wife Liz (January Jones) with another man (Aidan Quinn), a man who insists that he's Dr. Martin Harris.

Under no apparent duress, Liz confirms that Martin #2 -- who produces all the evidence Martin #1 can't -- is the real deal. What's a concussion victim to do? Apart from questioning his own sanity, Mr. Harris hires ex-Stasi p.i. Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz of "Downfall"). At Jurgen's urging, Harris tries to make contact with the Bosnian illegal-immigrant cab driver (Diane Kruger) behind the wheel during the crash (she may remember something useful), as well as an older colleague (Frank Langella) who Harris believes can confirm his identity.

What makes "Unknown" compelling -- for those who will find it so -- is the desperate, soul-shaking situation facing Martin. Unfortunately for the audience, the more help he gets and the more he learns, the less taut the film becomes. At first crisply paced to stay a step ahead of us, the story gradually slackens. Action sequences begin to fill the time until the big reveal: "Bourne"-lite hand-to-hand combat with goons and a Frankenheimer-esque car chase (with admittedly impressive stunt driving).

Still, in aspiring to match the thrillers of Frankenheimer and Hitchcock (and Polanski's Hitchcock homage "Frantic"), "Unknown" mostly lacks the grindhouse energy that fans of "Taken" might come expecting. They may find the picture a little too tasteful in the hands of director Jaume Collet-Serra ("Orphan") and as adapted by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell from Didier Van Cauwelaert's novel (a.k.a. "Out of My Head").

On the other hand, a time bomb does show up at one point, so it's not exactly "My Dinner with Andre."

Best of show goes to any scene that puts the canny Ganz front and center; his character is the only one with anything truly interesting to say, as when he calls willful forgetting (of Nazism and Communism) the German national pastime. The scene putting Ganz tete-a-tete with Langella captures the frisson of two old lions sizing each other up.

When "Unknown" doles out its answers and pits "good guy" against "bad guy," you'll be forgiven for wishing the film were more interested in moral complexity. But even after the guesswork is over, Neeson's towering intensity holds the picture's center.

Rated PG-13 for violence and action, and brief sexual content. 1 hour, 53 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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