Unknown shows strong plot, weak action

Unknown has all the makings of a summer blockbuster: big name stars, a fast paced plot, smart dialogue and explosions.

Hidden under the glamorous sheen are truly compelling characters. But the story itself, adapted from French novelist Didier van Cauwelaert’s Hors de moi, ends up feeling contrived.

The film begins with American botanist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) arriving with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), at a Berlin hotel for a biotechnology conference. He realizes that his briefcase was left behind at the airport, so they grab a taxi to rush back and get it. En route, they get into a horrible, watery accident and Martin is saved by the cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger). Four days later he wakes up in the hospital, confused, alone and without any identification.

Things get worse for Martin when he finds Liz back at the hotel with another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be the real Martin Harris. This new guy has the right stuff to prove his case, whipping out several forms of ID and some honeymoon photos for good measure.

Martin takes to the snowy streets of Berlin to rummage through his identity crisis, meeting several odd characters along the way. Every person, word choice and expression instantly becomes suspicious. One can never tell the difference between who is trying to help Martin and who is trying to kill him.

Unknown is laced with stellar acting. Neeson instantly makes his character likable, playing him with just enough guile and existential angst to elicit genuine concern from the audience. This is quite a feat, considering the limited details about who Martin actually is.

It is equally remarkable that in a film with a rough and tough mentality, Neeson can still make Martin vulnerable. He is first and foremost a name-taking badass, but he is also a man hurt and displaced by his wife’s rejection.

The friendship Martin develops with Gina is one of the most interesting aspects of the film, and also the least complicated.

Her bohemian lifestyle forces him to approach the situation from a fresh point of view, and his conventional intelligence helps her deal with problems of her own. Though their spark is strictly platonic, these two seem to make more sense as a pair than Martin and Liz.

Yet Jones’ signature iciness makes Liz more frightening than anything else. Calculating and devoid of emotion, Liz’s true motives are always elusive. Unfortunately, her character remains undeveloped, which lessens the punch of the film’s climax.

Unknown almost loses its focus with many attempts at masquerading as an action flick. There are several unnecessarily extravagant fight scenes and car chases sprinkled throughout, which do not add anything useful to the story. The film is much better at wrestling with the suspenseful and mysterious layers of the plot.

Still, the gloomy cinematography and nerve-wracking timing do an excellent job at providing the audience with a feeling of uneasiness during the course of the film. In each of the few slow-moving scenes, there is so much tension that one anticipates something awful will happen at any moment.

The twists and turns of Unknown become more complex as the story progresses. It takes considerable effort to keep up and the audience is pulled in several different directions.

Countless new characters and plot lines are thrown into the mix at inopportune times, cleverly detracting from the answers to the film’s major questions.

Despite the seemingly unnecessary complications, the film’s tactic for keeping the ending under wraps proves effective. The final revelation of exactly what is going on is utterly surprising.

Unknown explores the meaning of identity and memory, perhaps not as well as films from a similar vein such as The Bourne Identity series.

It’s an entertaining journey but the film’s impact could have been more meaningful with stronger character development or emphasis on psychological thrill, rather than fancy action sequences.

Nevertheless, the film addresses an interesting issue that anyone can struggle with: What determines who you are? There is no easy answer, and Unknown serves as a reminder of just that.