Think the Bourne films (sans the series’ inherent intelligence) mixed with a tiny bit of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) (minus that film’s three-breasted Martians or bulgy-eyed Arnold Schwarzenegger, among other things) and you get the gist of Jaume Collet-Serra’s Unknown. This, and a plot full of contrivances, coincidences and general absurdities, doesn’t quite sink a movie that—viewed dispassionately—works as simple entertainment. But it sure comes close to submerging it on occasion.
Here, we get a surprisingly uninvolved Liam Neeson as Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist who’s just landed in Berlin with his wife (an embarrassingly stilted January Jones, Pirate Radio). Forgetting his briefcase at the airport, Doc Martin leaves his wife at the hotel and catches a cab to go pick it up. But before he makes it back, he ends up in a car wreck that leaves him in a coma for four days. And things don’t get much better for the good doctor, as he wakes up to find out his wife doesn’t recognize him and that another man (Aidan Quinn) is purporting to be Dr. Martin Harris.
We then watch as our original Martin attempts to piece together the puzzles of his fractured memory and identity, at first thinking he might just be crazy, before figuring out that things—cue the sting music—aren’t quite what they seem. It’s then a quagmire of geopolitics, espionage and a slowly unraveling plot.
The bulk of the film works in faux Bourne aesthetics, grittier looking, but less elegant, a discount version of those earlier movies. There are the same themes of governmental skullduggery, with the same type of real world brutality in the fight scenes (but lacking the style) to be found here. When we get to the high-speed car chase through the streets of Europe, you start to hope that Robert Ludlum is getting a cut of the royalties.
Being derivative isn’t necessarily the death knell for a movie, but as the flaws begin to accumulate, the film starts to trip over its own feet. Under any examination, Unknown‘s clockwork plotting looks to be held together with duct tape, relying too often on happenstance and the out-and-out stupidity of highly trained spies. We’re talking Spy Vs. Spy kind of bumbling here, and while absurdity isn’t always a bad thing, Unknown isn’t self-aware enough to realize that it’s actually quite ridiculous.
Then there’s Neeson, who at 58, is duking it out with Harrison Ford as the premiere grumpy old action star. Usually a fine actor, here we get the worst of Neeson, as he lurches about as if he were resurrected by Colin Clive, all the while affecting an American accent that just allows him to grumble. The whole performance is one-note and disappointing, with an air of ersatz respectability, leaving the film listless. It’s too much a variation on the same type of gruff role he played in his other Euro-actioner, the goofy Taken (2008). The only time the actors bring any life to the film is when Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella square off, and by then it’s far too brief and far too late to save things. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content.