Who is Dr. Martin Harris? To hear him tell it, he’s a world-renowned botanist, on holiday in Berlin with his adoring wife Liz to speak at a biotechnology summit.
Problem is, nobody believes him. Robbed of his memory and passport by a car crash that leaves him four days in a coma, Martin (Liam Neeson) is a stranger — even to himself — in a strange, curiously uncharitable land.
Saying much more about Martin’s frantic bid to reclaim his identity would spoil the trick at the heart of “Unknown,” a thriller that tarts up a brilliantly simple premise with a surfeit of car chases, knock-down, drag-out brawls and explosions that give the German capital its worst beating since World War II.
As the movie’s trailers have revealed, Martin finds no solace in his brief reunion with Liz (January Jones, of TV’s “Mad Men”), who denies knowing this desperate stranger claiming to be her husband.
Worse, she has taken up with an impostor (Aidan Quinn), also professing to be Doc Martin, whose ID and Web page back up his story.
For answers, Martin turns to the last person he saw before the accident: Gina (Diane Kruger), the lead-footed cabbie whose detour into the frigid river Spree has reduced his memory to so many snapshots, precariously etched in a confused mind.
Can she help him retrace his steps, back to Liz and his cozy suite at the five-star Adlon Hotel? Or is she just another cog in an elaborate conspiracy to erase his existence?
“Unknown” is based on Didier Van Cauwelaert’s existential mystery novel “Out of My Head,” but the movie owes almost as much to Hitchcock’s mistaken-identity classic “North by Northwest,” which thrust its befuddled hero into a similarly maddening bind.
Hitchcock understood that half the fun was allowing Cary Grant’s overmatched Everyman to turn the tables on his enemies by outsmarting them, methodically unraveling their implausible schemes.
Yet “Unknown” screenwriters Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell seem less interested in Martin’s search for clues than in blowing the bad guys to smithereens.
Not that they don’t deserve it, mind you. But imagine how much richer “Unknown” might have been if the filmmakers had spent more time getting to know their characters, or had shared Hitchcock’s wry sense of mischief. Instead, they treat a wonderful setup as just another trigger for Hollywood violence.
Of the movie’s many surprises, the most jarring is the least calculated — how pedestrian it all seems in the end.
Starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella
Written by Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Running time 1 hour 53 minutes