Nov 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in the world of low-fi filmmaking, it's but a tired cliché; the list of Tarantino-wannabes alone could fill a Toledo phonebook.

Like so many before them, first-time director Simon Brand and screenwriter Matthew Waynee snatched ingredients from established films (in this case, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects and Saw) and have thrown them into a low-budget blender. The resulting cocktail is a watered-down crime flick that's not nearly as inspired or daring as its antecedents.

Five men (Jim Caviezel, Barry Pepper, Greg Kinnear, Jeremy Sisto and Joe Pantoliano) awaken inside a sealed warehouse in the desert. With no memory of who they are or how they got there, the men — some wounded, some restrained — shift suspicions and alliances as they struggle to find a way out. Random clues — a mysterious phone call, an engraved lighter, newspaper clippings — flesh out their story as conveniently timed flashbacks show fragments of their past.

Meanwhile, a pair of police detectives (Chris Mulkey and Kevin Chapman) track a crafty thug (Peter Stormare) who's made off with a suitcase full of ransom money. Is he connected to the men in the warehouse? Do bees vomit honey?

Bouncing back and forth between the warehouse and the cops, this amnesiac kidnapping caper offers up some interesting sleights of hand, as the roles of kidnapper and captive constantly shift. It's an intriguing premise that, in hands of accomplished filmmakers, might have gone somewhere.

Unfortunately, Waynee's lackluster writing and Brand's jittery direction lessen the film's spark, and there's no mounting urgency or intrigue. The unnecessary police story pulls us away from the warehouse, deflating the film's few moments of mystery and suspense. A succession of ludicrous character twists makes the film's conceit feel like just a means-to-an-end stunt.

Had more focus been given to the imprisoned men's paranoia, abandonment and mistrust, the creators could've produced a tidy thriller. They do briefly hint at something deeper in that human nature doesn't always coincide with past behavior and given the chance, a criminal will reinvent himself as a better person. But that's quickly lost in favor of poorly choreographed action and "surprise" endings.

What drew the cast of impressive actors to Brand's film remains a mystery, but all of them turn in solid performances. Caviezel, especially, works overtime to sell the film's most labored contrivances.

Unknown is one of those indie efforts that embraces limitations of its budget and setting — too bad the film is as generic as its title.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].