Unknown Review

I was planning on reviewing the Halle Berry / Bruce Willis thriller Perfect Stranger today. In fact I will review it: it's Basic Instinct 2 without the gratuitous nudity. In other words, it's as dopey as you've heard and not worth bothering with unless you're drunk and you fancy a giggle. The only good thing I can say about is I didn't guess the final twist. However that's because the final twist makes absolutely no sense whatsoever in terms of the story, the characters, recognisible human behaviour or anything else. There's your review of Perfect Stranger.

There are a lot of bad movies around at the moment. Poorly conceived attempts to revive the glossy big-star thriller; boring, middle-brow biopics of famous authors and anti-slavery campaigners; lazy comedies about fat wives, blundering tourists and student porn moguls; "shocking" horror movies about cannibals whose makers have failed to notice that this sort of thing hasn't been shocking for some years now; incoherent nonsense about vigilantes, clairvoyants and space disasters.

In the face of all this rubbish, let me point you to a good film you might not have heard about - a tight, suspenseful, independent thriller called Unknown that, true to its title, has slipped under the radar both in the US and the UK. Maybe the reason it's failed to get anyone excited is that when you describe it, it calls to mind a lot of other movies - Saw, Memento, Reservoir Dogs, Cube, The Usual Suspects, Identity, even John Carpenter's The Thing. But don't dismiss it as a rip-off. Unknown may have been inspired by one or more of these films but it goes off in its own direction and finds a clever and original twist on the familiar story of a crime gone wrong.

The story begins in a grotty, deserted warehouse way off the beaten track in the middle of the Californian desert. Locked from the outside, the solid stone building contains the sprawled bodies of five unconscious men (Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Joe Pantoliano and Jeremy Sisto). One is tied up. Another has been shot in the shoulder.

One by one, they regain consciousness and they each discover they've lost their memories. None of them know who they are or what they're doing in the warehouse. However, it doesn't take them long to figure out that before they all blacked out, something bad was happening - something criminal and possibly something deadly. Their lives may depend on discovering who they are, what they were up to and how to get out.

Learning the answers to these mysteries makes for a fun and exciting eighty-five minutes at the cinema. The script by Matthew Waynee is smart and witty and, crucially for a thriller, it plays fair (unlike Perfect Stranger). Although there are plenty of twists, including a couple of eye-openers, they're all perfectly logical within the framework of the story. They only thing that strains credibility a little is the premise of the men all losing their memories but even the reason behind this isn't too far-fetched.

Like most good films made on modest budgets (Unknown cost under $4 million), this is a character-based movie - and in more ways than one since it's about the characters of the five men being put to the test. The underlying theme of the film is how much of your character is defined by your memories - by your past. That's a compelling concept and it's nicely developed by Waynee, especially in the case of the man Jim Caviezel plays (no one has a name).

Much of Unknown's suspense comes from the way these men interact, forming alliances and rivalries and then breaking them and making others as they learn more and their memories slowly start to come back. Your own sympathies shift around as much as those of the guys onscreen. That this is so riveting isn't only down to the script - the movie is blessed with a superb cast, headed by Jim Caviezel and Greg Kinnear, two of the most interesting leading men in American cinema and featuring the great Joe Pantoliano and the much under-rated Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, 25th Hour, The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada). Caviezel and Pepper are both exceptionally good in this.

The director is Simon Brand, a first-timer who I hope will come to someone's attention in Hollywood since he obviously knows more about working with actors, pacing a film and building tension than many big name directors around today. This is a very impressive piece of work. I was never conscious of the low budget - on the contrary, the film is slick and well-suited to the big screen.

There's been a debate on the DVD Forums over the last couple of days about film length. Some people, myself included, have been complaining about how bloated films are getting (Spider-Man 3 and Pirates 3 both clock in around the two and three-quarter hour mark). Others argue that more is more and a ninety-minute movie is too short and poor value for money. I'd like to put Unknown forward as a perfect demonstration of why you don't need length to make an entertaining, satisfying movie. This is a little gem. If it's on near you, give it a chance.

Overall

8

out of 10

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