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Warner Bros. Pictures/Dark Castle Holdings

Identity crisis

Movies | If you can ignore some plot holes and suspend enough disbelief, Unknown is an enjoyable movie

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

In the 1950s and '60s, Alfred Hitchcock held audiences spellbound with stylish, smart, psychological thrillers that kept everyone guessing. Films like North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Rebecca have become classics. Director Jaume Collet-Serra tries to capture the old magic in his new mystery Unknown.

Liam Neeson, whose great actor status was cemented by movies such as Schindler's List and Rob Roy, takes on the role of Dr. Martin Harris. Along with his beautiful wife Elizabeth (January Jones), the good doctor travels to a high-profile conference in Germany. Scientists and even an Arab prince congregate to hear how bioscience is working to feed the hungry throughout the world. Dr. Harris will present his research. However, just as Elizabeth steps from the cab to check into the hotel, her husband realizes he's left his briefcase with his passport at the airport. He zips back into a cab.

Dr. Harris awakens four days later in the hospital. He is told the taxi was in an accident. The driver, an unrealistically beautiful cabbie named Gina (Diane Kruger), fished him from an icy river. Convinced his wife must be frantic, Dr. Harris heads to the hotel against the advice of his doctor. (The inability of the hospital to call the hotel on his behalf is just one of the don't-look-too-closely plot holes of the film.) When he arrives, his wife has no memory of him. Indeed, she produces a husband, a different Dr. Martin Harris, to whom she claims to be happily married.

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Harris wavers between dogmatic belief in the memories of his past and suspicions that the hit on the head may have rattled his gray matter. There is likely more to the story, however. A sinister German agent trying to murder him is one clue. On the run, Harris teams up with the cabbie Gina, an illegal immigrant from war-torn Bosnia. She has the only clue to his true identity. He also seeks out Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a relic of the Cold War and former East German agent. The elderly man is now reduced to the role of private eye, but he remembers the good old days with relish.

The character of Jurgen, along with a later appearance of Frank Langella, contributes a great deal of Hitchcockian flare to the film. You can take the Cold War out of the old spy, but you can't entirely take the spy out of the Cold Warrior. Not to be too old-fashioned; the director injects plenty of modern-day action into the film. Neeson runs, jumps, punches, and drives cars very fast in reverse with the best of them. He is always a step ahead of sinister forces, but just barely a step.

As with some of Hitchcock's most famous films, it's best not to look too closely or ask too many questions. Disbelief must stay thoroughly suspended. If one can swallow the premise, however, the film is a lot of fun. Rated PG-13, the movie includes a few swear words. Violence is not too intense. There is one scene of Harris and his wife in the shower, shown through the foggy lens of memory. It is brief, but uncomfortable with teens.

The fact that Neeson, at 60, is literally old enough to be the father of his 33-year-old screen wife never becomes an issue in the film, but surely speaks volumes about the business of Hollywood. While distracting, this mismatch doesn't ruin the film. It merely becomes another detail the viewer must ignore on the way to enjoying an entertaining film that, while not reaching the greatness of Hitchcock, earns points for trying to revive his genre.

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