"Unthinkable" comes across as more earnest than exciting in dramatizing a hot-button issue.

At once provocative and simplistic, “Unthinkable” comes across as more earnest than exciting in dramatizing the ongoing debate over a hot-button issue — the efficacy and morality of torture as an anti-terrorism weapon — in the context of a worst-case “ticking time-bomb” scenario. Timely subject matter and familiar lead players may attract renters, if not buyers, for this direct-to-vid release, especially if political commentators weigh in with pro and con appraisals in the blogosphere.

Helmer Gregor Jordan (“The Informers”) and scripter Peter Woodward (“Closing the Ring”) waste little time setting up their contrived but compelling premise: Steven Younger (Michael Sheen), a Delta Force vet and weapons expert-turned-radicalized Muslim, releases a video statement claiming he’s hidden nuclear bombs in three U.S. cities, all set to explode in four days. Inexplicably, he allows himself to be captured, but refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the bombs unless his demands are met.

Enter Helen Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss), a seasoned FBI agent who assumes she’ll be in charge of any interrogations, enhanced or otherwise, when she arrives at an abandoned high school commandeered by the U.S. military as a holding area for Younger. Early on, however, she finds she’s merely a designated subordinate to H (Samuel L. Jackson), an “independent contractor” with an impressively high success rate of coercing info from uncooperative subjects.

H is disdainful of techniques used by U.S. Army interrogators on the scene. (“Have you told him how small his penis is?” he jeers. “They really hate that.”) But his own methods are more bluntly brutal — axes, scalpels and dental drills are tools of his trade — inspiring sputtering outrage from Brody. But the FBI agent’s objections are overruled by military officers and intelligence ops on the scene.

Throughout “Unthinkable,” the filmmakers strive mightily — and at times, much too obviously — for balance and perspective. The give-and-take between opposing characters is passionately played, but the actual dialogue often sounds like excerpts from op-ed essays constructed from talking points. Worse, there is a distractingly bumpy, start-and-stop quality to the narrative as the heated arguments (and the bloody torture sessions) continue.

H may very well be the smartest guy in the room, but the pic stops far short of depicting him as heroic, and even raises the possibility that he’s more than a little demented. And yet, despite Moss’ best efforts to be the voice of reason, her character simply isn’t substantial enough to serve as a counterbalancing foil. In fact, there are moments during the pic’s final third when Brody appears profoundly naive, which likely wasn’t the intent of the filmmakers.(In a slightly “extended version” of the pic available as a DVD option, an epilogue rather explicitly reinforces H’s viewpoint. Which is one reason, Jordan admits in his voiceover commentary, why he opted not to use the scene in his official version.)

Sheen does what he can in a largely thankless role, screaming convincingly when it’s appropriate to do so, and straining to suggest some degree of consistency for a character whose motives are never completely clear. Other supporting characters are so thinly written, even such reliable pros as Martin Donovan (as Brody’s FBI superior) and Stephen Root (as H’s CIA contact) are hard pressed to make much impact.

Lenser Oliver Stapleton employs a number of shrewd visual stratagems to enhance the overall sense of claustrophobia in a pic that, despite a few exterior shots, remains almost entirely indoors, and mostly within the confines of the interrogation area. (It would require minimal tinkering to adapt Woodward’s script into a stage play.) For that reason alone, “Unthinkable” likely will play much better on homevid that it ever could on the bigscreen.

Unthinkable

Direct-to-video

Production

A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release of a Lleju Prods. production in association with Senator and SKE/KI. Produced by Marco Weber, Caldecot Chubb, William O. Perkins III, Vanessa Coifman. Executive producers, Rachel Rose, Vincent Cirrincione. Directed by Gregor Jordan. Screenplay, Peter Woodward.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Scott Chestnut; music, Graeme Revell; production designer, Steven Jones-Evans; art director, Nick Ralbovsky; set decorator, Amber Haley; costume designer, Danielle Hollowell; sound (Dolby Digital), David Daniel; special effects supervisor, William Dawson; stunt coordinator, Charlie Croughwell; assistant director, Stephen Dunn; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, June 22, 2010. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Michael Sheen, Martin Donovan, Lora Kojovic, Stephen Root, Gil Bellows, Holmes Osborne.

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