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Movies like Unknown are all about the ride, the events that happen while getting from A to B. Even with a couple slip-ups along the way, Unknown is a ride worth taking.

Regarding Martin

Gina and Martin discuss the Unknown.
Gina and Martin discuss the Unknown.

A knee-jerk reaction is to compare Unknown to another recent Liam Neeson action flick, Taken. Such a comparison is misguided, though. Taken was a straight-forward revenge story in which Neeson’s character traveled to Europe to rescue his daughter, who had been kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. The girl had an ulterior motive for her European adventure: she was going to follow U2 around on tour. Crazy kid.

The situation in Unknown is much more complicated, and to its credit, much more involving.

Only so much can be said about the storyline while staying spoiler free.

It’s safe to say Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, who’s arrived in Berlin for a bio-tech conference. After realizing he misplaced a briefcase at the airport, he leaves his wife at the hotel and heads out to retrieve his property.

He doesn’t make it.

En route, Martin’s taxi is involved in a freak accident that sends the car over a bridge and into the river.

Martin spends the next four days in a coma and awakes to a totally different world. Suffering from amnesia, he grapples with what is reality and what might merely be his imagination. As things gradually return to his head, Martin finds out he’s got some problems on his hands. At the top of the list: his wife not only doesn’t recognize him, she’s married to a different man.

Left Luggage

based on the novel Out of My Head by French writer Didier van Cauwelaert, in many respects the story in Unknown owes a lot to the work of another artist born in France, Roman Polanski. Many of the events in Unknown seem to be plucked from Frantic’s playbook. There’s the premise of the American doctor attending a foreign conference, but there’s also the sleepy, post-flight taxi ride into city centre, a wife’s fate shrouded in mystery, a night club scene, a precarious rooftop scene, and a crazy chase in a taxi. Particularly in regard to the latter, Unknown one-ups Frantic.

Swap Berlin for Paris and Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) as Gina, an earnest illegal immigrant from Bosnia, for Emanuelle Seigner’s sexed-up druggy role and the bulk of the puzzle pieces are in place.

Those eerie, suspect coincidences aside, Unknown stakes out its own ground and takes advantage of what Berlin has to offer.

Adding to the intrigue is a terrific supporting performance by Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) as Ernst Jurgen, a former spy enlisted to unravel Martin’s peculiar predicament. A Stasi agent back in the days of a split Germany – and a split Berlin – Ernst pieces the puzzle together and the final picture is an interesting scenario.

The Fugitive

What makes Unknown work so well is the intrigue that builds up around Ernst’s Stasi past and the involvement of another shadowy player, Rodney Cole (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon). This extra level of depth provides a layer of padding for when the story stumbles at the climax.

Indeed, there are a couple significant lapses in plausibility while approaching the denouement, but they won’t be described here. A simple acknowledgment of their existence is enough. Once again, though, it’s the ride that matters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) keeps the pacing nice and even, smoothly adjusting the tension knob and playing with the audience as he teases of Martin’s potential for pure paranoia. Is that guy following him in the subway station really following him, or simply walking behind him?

There are also some nice plays on current events that counter-balance the references to historic elements like those Stasi agents. It’s 2011 and most of the world’s countries are struggling with some form of economic meltdown. That sets the stage for criticism of Gina’s illegal immigrant status; her former boss at the taxi service rails on how people of her ilk are destroying German society. Without too much irony, Gina goes on to work at an ethnic restaurant.

The world is also overheating with terrorism and extremist factions, and this too plays into Unknown’s spy-versus-spy machinations.