Liam Neeson has made a career of losing things on screen, from Jews (Schindler’s List) to his precious daughter (Taken), but his struggle to reclaim them has never felt so artificial, listless, and meaningless as it does in Unknown. Starring as Martin Harris, a doctor who travels to Berlin for a biotechnology convention, Neeson awakens after a car accident to discover that his wife (January Jones) no longer recognizes him and calls another man (Aidan Quinn) her husband. With the help of the illegal Bosnian taxi driver (Diane Kruger) who saved his life, Martin struggles to prove his identity, and also rid the world of the type of globetrotting goons that haven’t been en vogue since the Cold War.
Early on, as Martin and his Barbie Doll of a wife arrive in Berlin, making it through customs and traveling to their hotel while planning their extra-curricular activities, Unknown sells itself with the same fake artistic sophistication of the last dozen cans of compressed air gussied up for audiences as George Clooney films. But around the time the couple passes Berlin’s Golden Angel, director Juame Collet-Serra seems to tire of the self-serious advertorial dithering, settling for the more anonymous artistic banality of Salt, which makes sense insofar as Mark, in between flashbacks that look as if they were ghost-directed by Tony Scott, finds himself reliving Angelina Jolie’s nightmare from the Phillip Noyce film.
Given that neither Jason Statham nor Luc Besson had anything to do with Unknown, it’s no surprise that the film barely pops. (Even the smartest scene, in which Martin meets his wife inside a museum hosting an exhibition of close-ups of different faces, is a too-literal articulation of the protagonist’s crisis.) As in Salt, there’s one excitingly improbable car chase, and as these things usually go, you’re interested in seeing how Martin resolves crisis even as you remain doubtful that the pieces will fall into place in a way that you haven’t seen before. That Unknown offers nothing new doesn’t come as a shock, but given that Martin’s struggle is one with identity, that the film doesn’t so much as have the man grapple with the moral implications of what he discovers about himself means this is a more thuggish and cavalier entertainment than Salt.
For grownup kids like Noyce and Collet-Serra, films like Salt and Unknown fulfill a fantasy of mixing current geopolitical drama with old-school spy games. That desire is made explicit in a scene from Unknown when the shady Rodney Cole (Frank Langella, in creepy Box mode) visits an ex-Stasi-turned-private eye, Ernst Jurgen (Bruno Ganz, free-reigning over the film with such bizarre gusto you’d think he and Betty White shared an agent), the former drooling over the latter’s Cold War mementos, remarking that his grandson would love them. The point seems to be that they don’t make them like they used to, but if you’re going to resuscitate a retrograde genre, why not aspire to the artistic and moral sophistication of John Frankenheimer’s ’60s political thrillers? In the end, Unknown isn’t even half as smart or fun as the worst 007 spy caper.