Cop-turned-security-man Jim Holland (Mantegna) finds himself up to his eyeballs in trouble, courtesy of a drug lord and two mysterious girls.
Really good thrillers are usually spoiled by really bad clichés. So it's no surprise that Persons Unknown deals with an alcoholic, chain-smoking ex-cop who earns a bent crust from a sinking security business and gets wrapped up in the charms of a mystery blonde and the dealings of a Colombian druglord. Not much there in the way of originality, but when you consider that the ex-cop is played by Joe Mantegna, the mystery blonde is a cripple and the druglord is but a sly MacGuffin, you begin to appreciate there are hidden depths to this cracking thriller.
Craig Smith's lean screenplay works on two levels. The first deals with sister duo Amanda and Molly (Lynch and Watts, respectively) who infiltrate a Colombian coke house only to get bamboozled by security boss Jim Holland (Mantegna) who steals the cash and leaves the women to fend for their lives. The second level underpins this classy set-up and homes in on Holland's need to protect the women from impending harm and thus achieve some kind of personal redemption.
Indeed, the concept of a fast-moving heist movie which ventures into a slow-drawn personal quest may disappoint some, but director Hickenlooper's masterful style is so plentiful in detail, location and pace that many will enjoy the slow manipulation of the audience. As with all independent thriller films, there are some great cameos, notably from J.T. Walsh as the shadowy bent cop, and Watts shines as the paraplegic who captures Mantegna's heart. But it's Mantegna himself who keeps your eyes pinned to the screen with his sullen expression and laconic style.
The plot does start to strain under several loose ends during the final reel, but for those who like their thrillers hard-boiled, Persons Unknown is about as tough as it gets.