Has the dire situation in Unknown ever happened to you? You and the wife take a trip out of the country for a business conference in Berlin. When you get to your hotel, you realize you've left luggage behind at the airport luggage containing your passport. (Who lets luggage containing their passport leave their hands? Not the point.) So you deposit the wife at the hotel reception desk, hail a taxi, speed back toward the airport, and (these things happen) end up in a crash that sends your car hurtling off a bridge into wintry German waters. When you emerge from a coma in a hospital bed (props to the taxi driver's heroic underwater rescue skills), you're pretty sure you know who you are. Trouble is, you've got no ID. And then, against your doctor's orders, you make your way back to your hotel, but the woman you know as your wife looks at you with utter incomprehension: She's never seen you before in her life. She's already got a husband. And he's got your name.
P.S. Assassins are now after you. What the #@*!?
Unknown says what the #@*!? too. Under the Euro-moody direction of Catalonian ad-and-music-video guy Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) and shaped by the big thumbs of producers Joel Silver and Leonard Goldberg, the movie whips up a big old puree of ingredients borrowed from other cinematic recipes. Then it dishes out the mildly spiced results as post-Oscar-quality snack food: You can sample a little identity confusion from the Bourne trilogy, wrong-man anxiety from Hitchcock, East German Cold War spy tactics from The Lives of Others, and a car chase from (insert favorite car-chase movie here). Continuing to pursue his options as an action hero, Liam Neeson runs around, angry and documentless, as Dr. Martin Harris. Mad Men's January Jones looks exceedingly blank and exceedingly blond as somebody's wife Elizabeth Harris. Aidan Quinn glowers belligerently as the other Dr. Martin Harris (with the passport to prove it). And Inglourious Basterds' Diane Kruger darts like a chicly scruffy Artful Dodger through the Berlin streets as the Bosnian-born taxi driver with the bad luck to draw Neeson's Dr. Harris as a passenger in the first place. By the way, at this point in his career, the appearance of Frank Langella gray-haired, close-cropped, moving with vulpine deliberation ought to trip audience triggers that the character he's playing has something up his sleeve.
To scrutinize the action-driven absurdities of Unknown is, surely, overkill in a movie in which Neeson barks,“Out of the way!'' with cartoonish ferocity as he pushes through crowds. (The screenplay is by journeymen scribes Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell.) Still, it's worth pausing to marvel at the chutzpah (as Berliners might not say) of tossing a soupçon of concern for illegal immigrants, nostalgia for the bad old days of East German secret police, and optimism about ending world hunger into a doozy in which Neeson also intones, “Do you know what it feels like to become insane?'' C+