In “Unknown”, five men wake up in a warehouse somewhere in the desert, with no memory of who they are. One man is bound to a chair, another has suffered a broken nose, a third is hanging by his wrist, which is handcuffed to a railing, and two men are unbound. It is eventually discovered that they have lost their short-term memory because of gas leaked from a canister knocked free during a violent encounter, and that two of them are abducted businessmen being held for ransom, and the other three are members of the kidnapping ring that are, at this very moment, returning to the warehouse with the ransom money. But who is who, and can they take the risk of being one of the good guys when the bad guys show up?
James Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”) leads the named cast as the first man to wake up. Because the script is built on the mystery of these men’s identities, everyone is identified by either their situation or their clothing. Caviezel is “Jean Jacket”, while Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), the other unbound man, is “Rancher Shirt”. Joe Pantoliano is “Bound Man”, who wakes up cursing like a sailor while bound to an office chair. By virtue of having a broken nose and lying in a pool of blood, Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”) is “Broken Nose”. As for Jeremy Sisto (“Population 436”), his circumstances (hanging at the wrist by handcuffs) has nabbed him the identity of “Handcuffed Man”.
The main focus of “Unknown” is inside the warehouse, a dirty, heavily fortified building somewhere in the California desert. The men find themselves not only without their memory, and the knowledge that all but two of them are criminals, but also unable to leave the warehouse. Meanwhile, somewhere in the city, a distraught wife (Bridget Moynahan, “Lord of War”) delivers the ransom money, as cops watch over her. The story switches between the warehouse and the outside world, and should seem familiar to viewers: it is nearly an identical narrative structure of the first “Saw” movie.
Without a doubt, “Unknown” owes a lot to “Saw” and similarly themed films. This may be one reason why the film, despite its A-list cast has not been widely distributed by Miramax. The film opened briefly in limited release late 2006, but will no doubt find most of its viewers on DVD and video store shelves, where, for all intents and purposes, it belongs. While not terrible by any means, “Unknown” is not as strong as it could have been, and there are a number of silly plot holes (apparently no one travels with pictured Ids in the movie), and the film relies far too much on flashbacks.
Written by Matthew Waynee and directed by Simon Brand, “Unknown” is a fast-paced, taut thriller that starts off strong enough, but can’t keep the momentum going to the very end. It is a film prime for twists and turns, but oddly enough, the script by Waynee is surprisingly very straightforward. As the men struggle to come to grips with their predicament, and information begins to slowly unravel for them in bursts of violent memory, it becomes somewhat easy to identify the men. Of course, Waynee has left a last-minute plot twist at the very end that, though not Earth shattering, is nevertheless interesting in a nonsensical, unnecessary sort of way.
It’s easy enough to see how “Unknown” nabbed its A-list cast. The premise alone is very intriguing, and the actors may have been seeing images of a “Saw” type hit on their hands. Alas, the final product, while not a total disaster, is simply too pedestrian for its own good. There is not enough energy, or enough reason to pay too much attention. As mentioned, the film’s narrative is too straightforward, supplying very few credible red herrings to keep the viewer off balance. If you pay even just a little bit of attention to the flashbacks, it quickly becomes obvious who is who. In the end, the film stays mostly true to its earlier identity assignments, which is disappointing.
Still, “Unknown” has enough going for it (and as mentioned, the premise is very intriguing) that it warrants a look. To be sure, it is not anywhere the “thinking man’s thriller” that the filmmakers probably see it as being, but there are moments, especially in the early parts, where it is quite good, with possibilities of something great always lingering in the background. It never quite reaches that promise land, but it does make a fair stab at it. At least enough to be worthwhile.
Simon Brand (director) / Matthew Waynee (screenplay)
CAST: James Caviezel …. Jean Jacket
Greg Kinnear …. Broken Nose
Bridget Moynahan …. Eliza Coles
Joe Pantoliano …. Bound Man
Barry Pepper …. Rancher Shirt
Jeremy Sisto …. Handcuffed Man
Peter Stormare …. Snakeskin Boots/Stefan Burian