Like any reasonable person, I approach a Renny Harlin film with lowered expectations. The poor man’s Michael Bay (shudder), Harlin is usually capable of concocting effective, if excessive, action sequences, but he overlooks pretty much every other prerequisite of filmmaking. His latest cinematic gewgaw, Mindhunters, comes with the additional caveat of being based on a spec script by Wayne Kramer, who co-wrote and directed The Cooler. Kramer may be smarter than Harlin, but his thinking is no more nuanced. The allegory of The Cooler was so heavy-handed that it turned around on itself, making it hard to guess which was the signifier and which was the signified — was Alec Baldwin supposed to represent old Vegas, or was it the other way around? If this guy were an urban planner, street signs would be 20 feet high.
The plot of Mindhunters derives from Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians: A group of people are sequestered on an island where they are knocked off one by one as the survivors try to deduce which of their number is responsible. Kramer’s script updates the story and makes blind jabs in irony’s general direction by making the characters FBI profilers in training, sent to the island for a field exercise in which they must investigate a fictional serial killer. For his part, Harlin attempts to make the story exciting and scary enought for the post-MTV generation through flashy editing and grisly, over-the-top death sequences.
The film’s website helpfully points out that Harlin cut and re-cut the movie repeatedly to achieve the pacing he desired. Judging by the end product, my guess is that after the second or third go-round he threw up his hands and tossed the footage into a Cuisinart. The action sequences are garishly choppy, in that way that hacks (no pun intended) like Harlin and Paul W.S. Anderson love so much, but even exposition sequences seem to be missing a few necessary frames. We’re repeatedly thrust into responses to actions our eyes haven’t even had time to focus on, and either the projectionist at my local theater is an idiot, or the scene shifts at reel changes are particularly bad. Maybe both.
Kramer’s script is smart enough to avoid one of the worst genre conventions — the characters don’t die in the order that we expect — and there is some genuine suspense built into the plot. The murderer, as usual, turns out to be the actor who’s been giving the worst, most off-key performance, but there are enough red herrings cast about to divert our suspicion for a while. The dialogue is serviceable in the action sequences, but whenever two characters separate from the group for a heart-to-heart, we’re treated to barmy platitudes that wouldn’t cut it in a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation. (Example: “You don’t confront your demons and defeat them. You confront them, and you confront them, and you confront them some more. Every single day.”) The script’s largest deficit, though, is that the characters don’t seem to be nearly as smart or well trained as they ought to be. I’ve never received any specialized instruction in catching serial killers, but the first murder was enough for me to guess an important plot point that they don’t figure out until after a couple more deaths.
Though he’s true to form with the action sequences, Harlin’s work with the actors is above his usual low standards. The murderer aside, the performances are generally as good as they need to be. Kathryn Morris (of TV’s “Cold Case” and Minority Report) is particularly effective at projecting her character’s ambiguities. She’s a woman with a painful secret in her past (no, really) whom the others mistrust; they don’t think she can handle herself when the chips are down, and she’s not so sure either. Val Kilmer, who plays the trainees’ arrogant instructor, is also notable for leaving the scenery relatively ungnawed, a rarity for him.
Mindhunters is the kind of movie you see when the movie you went to the theater for is sold out, or when you’ve already seen everything else that’s playing. It’s a mildly enjoyable way to pass a couple of idle hours; a mindless, escapist entertainment; the sort of thing we watch to relax or blow off steam, in the same way we might get a pedicure or read US magazine. In short, it may be the best film Renny Harlin’s ever made.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Mindhunters / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()