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MOVIE REVIEW

Promising premise, improbable delivery

Jim Caviezel's character, Jean Jacket, is one of five guys who wake up in a warehouse with no memory of who they are or how they got there. Jim Caviezel's character, Jean Jacket, is one of five guys who wake up in a warehouse with no memory of who they are or how they got there. (MAURICIO VELEZ)

The plot to "Unknown" sounds like one of those brainteasers in the back of a rainy-day-fun book: Five men wake up in a locked desert warehouse with no memory of who they are or how they got there. One has been handcuffed to a pipe and shot; another is tied to a chair. The other three have clearly been at each other recently with fists and two-by-fours. A newspaper on the table carries an article about the kidnapping of two corporate executives. You have 98 minutes to figure out what happened and who did what to whom. OK -- go.

This sounds enjoyable in a good - stupid way, and before the improbabilities stack up and block the actors from sight, "Unknown" is punchy and entertaining. Maybe not the sort of thing you'd want to spend $10 plus a mortgage for popcorn on, but a nifty surprise on DVD several months from now -- or on pay-cable on-demand right now. (The film plays through the end of the month as part of the "IFC in Theatres" programming block on Comcast.)

It helps that there are a number of gifted hams in the thing, busily acting to divert our attention from the silliness. The central figure is a rangy man in a jean jacket who the credits, obligingly, call Jean Jacket (Jim Caviezel of "Passion of the Christ"). He's the first to awake, the first to answer the phone and hear a cryptic voice on the other end, the first to wonder whether he's a victim or a criminal. In any event, he's capable and appropriately paranoid.

So is Rancher Shirt (Barry Pepper ), who quickly comes to threaten Jean Jacket's leadership. Broken Nose (Greg Kinnear ) is the whiny coward, either one of the kidnapped executives or a particularly ineffective crook. Bound Man is played by Joe Pantoliano , spluttering impotently beneath his restraints as only Joey Pants can. Handcuffed Man (Jeremy Sisto ) just hangs there bleeding, a reminder of the stakes in the game.

As written by Matthew Waynee and directed by first-timer Simon Brand , "Unknown" is a gimmick-mystery that might have worked better on TV -- it's "Lost" in a room, or "Saw" without the entrails. As a movie, it threatens to squander an intriguing premise on yelling matches and endless reversals of dominance. The men's memory loss is explained away surprisingly easily, but there's a little too much tap-dancing before we get to the ending, and then to the twist beyond that ending.

Just to keep our interest, the film ducks outside every so often to visit Peter Stormare ("Fargo") as a Very Evil Dude or Bridget Moynahan as the gorgeous wife of one of the executives. Then it's back to the warehouse with five sweaty men hammering on each other, each terrified he may turn out to be on the wrong side, whichever side that is. There's a mind-blowing existential drama here that "Unknown" has no interest in pursuing; it aspires, instead, to cleverness and it gets most of the way there.

That's honest enough, especially at Video on Demand prices. Still, you wish some of the plot holes had been spackled better. To name the most glaring: Five guys with amnesia, and not one of them has a wallet?

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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