The thriller overcomes a dangerously silly premise with a top-notch cast and suspenseful, surprising plot.
"Unknown" is the Mount Everest of high-concept thrillers. Five men wake up in an abandoned warehouse, stricken with amnesia. One has been handcuffed to a railing and shot. One has been bashed in the face with a shovel. One has been bound to a chair. None has any idea why they are locked into the derelict building, nor who they are.
Even when bursts of recollection hit them -- something about a big-money kidnapping -- they can't say for sure whether they are the victims or the culprits. Everyone distrusts all the others. Oh, and there's a gun.
Written by Matthew Waynee and directed by Simon Brand, the film borrows from a lot of colorful crime dramas (you've probably already name-checked "Memento,"The Usual Suspects" and "Reservoir Dogs") while adding a few devilish twists of its own.
The characters are continually on edge and their exchanges are a ham actor's dream: eye-bulgingly loud, macho-profane and violent. That's probably why, despite a borderline-absurd premise, the film reeled in a powerhouse cast. Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper and Jeremy Sisto play the captives, feverishly improvising plans that might keep them alive when the other kidnappers, or the police, come through the door. Alliances are struck and betrayed, identities guessed at and abandoned as the men dig into their instincts to deduce whether they are upstanding citizens or criminals. The temporary memory loss, caused by a ruptured gas canister, wears off at different rates for each of the men.
As it turns out, hoods and cutthroat businessmen share the same go-for-the-jugular survival drive, and partial recollections can be more dangerous than none at all. At the edge of the action, the knockout wife (Bridget Moynahan) of the kidnapped real estate king frets attractively at the police station.
The film keeps suspense at a rolling simmer by parceling out clues stingily. The climactic twists -- there are more than one -- are agreeably logical and unexpected enough to keep even hardened mystery junkies guessing until the end credits roll. "Unknown" is far from a perfect movie, but it's more amusing than many better-made ones.