Unknown (2006)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/06/07 01:00:02

"Who am I? Who cares?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Unknown” is a movie too convinced of its own cleverness. It’s so wrapped up in its own twists and turns that it forgets to make the rest of the picture worth watching. This is the work of filmmakers so satisfied with a story that isn’t the least bit satisfying.

The set-up: five guys wake up in a grimy abandoned warehouse to discover they all have amnesia. Who are they? How did they get there? Why is one of them tied to a chair, another handcuffed and shot in the shoulder? And why did the mysterious person on the other end of the phone call seem so certain as to the identity of one of the men? Soon they uncover more clues to discover three of them are kidnappers, and the other two are their victims. But which two?

On its own, this could have worked as a tight little one-set thriller, with characters engaged in a battle of wits to gain the upper hand as their memories slowly return. As it stands, the movie has no concern with any character-fueled drama that such a situation must create. Instead, the story is opened up to a larger, clumsier field containing the outside world, in which cops fumble their attempt to catch up with the kidnappers while the wife of one of the men (which one?) stands around waiting for something to happen.

Much of this “outside” plot involves too little happening; it exists merely to break up the monotony of a single set. There are moments in which the police chase down the kidnappers’ bosses, but these scenes are so predictable in their efforts to be unpredictable that they consistently disappoint - anyone surprised by the way the bad guys repeatedly outsmart the cops simply hasn’t seen enough movies in which people outsmart other people.

When we do return to the warehouse, we find things are not much better off. The script keeps hitting speed bumps, finding great energy in scenes where truth is revealed and twists are taken, only to have that energy quickly drain in all the scenes that connect these moments. The film, written by Matthew Waynee and directed by Simon Brand (both making their feature debut), is so desperate to shock that it never bothers to figure out what to do the rest of the time. There’s too little tension between the characters to make the story matter; a film like this only works when the small, in-between bits are just as riveting as the big reveals. There aren’t even any worthwhile builds to the reveals, no slow, tense moments taking us to the key points. It’s just sudden revelations, out of nowhere, because the filmmakers don’t know any other way to get to the “good stuff.”

The only thing keeping our interest is the cast, which includes Greg Kinnear, Jeremy Sisto, Barry Pepper, and Joe Pantoliano, all of whom breathe a bit of much-needed life into their stale characters. (The lead, meanwhile, is dangerously lackluster, enhanced by the fact that he is played by Jim Caviezel, the World’s Most Boring Actor five years running.) The cast makes a few scenes work when they otherwise wouldn’t, such as a few fits of desperation as one tries to convince another that they are the kidnappees, or another in which Sisto’s character recounts a story from his childhood. The screenplay even begins to approach something more - with criminals discovering that this amnesia thing could be a fresh start, a way to turn away from a life of crime, to set things right - but then it scoots back, distracted by a shiny plot twist or memory recovery flashback, and we’re right back in the shallow end of the pool.

There’s just not enough holding the picture together long enough for the movie to overcome its gimmicky status. The film has been called an iffy blend of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Saw,” but I’ll say there are plenty of other stories in there as well, everything from “Cube” to “The Usual Suspects” to “Memento” to “And Then There Were None” to a handful of Brian De Palma flicks.

But imagine a movie made up entirely of Keyser Soze finales, with rambling padding barely holding them together. You’d grow tired of the twists all too quickly as you’d have nothing making the twists worth watching. Or imagine a magician who kept pulling rabbits from his hat, one after another, with no set-ups, just constant rabbits. After a while, we’d stop watching the trick. And that’s where “Unknown” goes wrong, by forgetting that before we can be stunned by the surprise, we have to want to watch the set-up.

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