Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Berlin is a perfect setting for “Unknown,” a pulsating psychological thriller starring Liam Neeson as an American scientist whose identity is apparently stolen while he’s recovering from a car crash.
The German capital had its own identity crisis during the Cold War, when it was split in two by the Berlin Wall, and its mysterious air has long captivated filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Quentin Tarantino.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) soaks up the atmosphere with shots of the Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, Hotel Adlon and the New National Gallery. The scenery complements the suspenseful tale about Martin Harris (Neeson), a mild-mannered botanist who awakes from a coma only to learn that another man (Aidan Quinn) is living with his name, his job and his wife (frosty January Jones, of “Mad Men”).
Harris’s wife claims she doesn’t recognize him and the authorities don’t believe his story -- that while visiting the city for a biotech conference, his taxi crashed into a river and he was rescued by the female driver. When he leaves the hospital, his previous life has seemingly disappeared and been replaced by a state of limbo where he’s chased by assassins for reasons he can’t fathom.
Harris seeks help from Ernst (spookily played by Bruno Ganz), a former member of the East German secret police; the lady cabbie (Diane Kruger), who turns out to be an illegal Bosnian immigrant; and an American friend (taciturn Frank Langella), a mysterious man with his own agenda.
Giving away too much detail will spoil the whole thing, so I’ve got to stop there. (If you’ve the read the French novel it’s based on, you’re out of luck.)
Neeson has appeared in a bunch of mediocre movies since his wife, Natasha Richardson, died in a 2009 skiing accident. “Unknown” is a vast improvement, despite some gaping holes in the plot and a few awkwardly shot scenes. The screenplay by Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell presents an intricate puzzle that’s fun solving.
“Unknown,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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