Five characters in search of an author: That could be the subtitle for “Unknown,” Columbian director Simon Brand‘s English-language feature debut, which is being released this Friday through the IFC First Take day-and-date program. Known for making music videos (Jessica Simpson’s “Irresistible,” Ricky Martin’s “It’s alright”), Brand is not entirely to blame for this direct-to-video-on-demand potboiler that begins with a promising premise.
Five guys gradually wake up, trapped in an abandoned industrial warehouse with no way out; one is handcuffed to the railings with a gunshot wound (Jeremy Sisto); another is tied to a chair (Joe Pantoliano); while the others (played by Jim Caviezel, Barry Pepper, Greg Kinnear) are roughed up — and none of them remembers who they are. Who are the kidnapped and who are the kidnappers? As the men strive to remember which side they’re on (mirrors, apparently, can induce memory-gaining flashbacks), alliances between them waver and shift. Meanwhile, a parallel story involving the pickup of the ransom money unfolds, with the gangleaders’ impending arrival back at the warehouse providing added suspense and a predictably bloody climax.
While one would like to report that “Unknown” has some veiled political message to impart about the blurred line between good and evil, victim and criminal, first-time screenwriter Matthew Waynee is too consumed with tough-talking dialogue, testosterone-filled strutting and one-too-many plot twists that are not only derivative of, but inferior to “Unknown’s” most obvious precursor, “Reservoir Dogs.” Riddled with cliche-ridden one-liners (“we’re all in this together”) and inappropriate story-halting monologues (a man’s dying story concludes “you told me never to give up”), Waynee offers a Tarantino rip-off with whiffs of “Memento” about a decade too late.
The admirable cast of character-actors does its best, pumping up the tension with sweaty brows and violent outbursts, but little can save the rote writing. Especially not actress Bridget Moynahan‘s smarmy, lazy, leggy performance as the kidnapper’s distraught wife–does her dubious acting indicate the duplicitous nature of her character or the fact that her biggest credits are “Coyote Ugly,” “I, Robot” and J.J. Abrams‘ new TV series “Six Degrees”? In fact, Abrams may be another key influence here: “Unknown” is a little like “Lost,” except the men are all white and they’re not that smart.