Gory thriller has a good old time killing off its castmembers
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Renny Harlin
Cast: Kathryn Morris, LL Cool J, Christian Slater, Val Kilmer
When you're sitting in the movie theater throwing Milk Duds down your gullet, it's generally not a good idea to think too hard about what those hardened gobs of sugar are doing to your teeth, your skin, your waistline. Honestly, they're probably not all that good for you. But, as long as you don't linger on the ingredients, they're freakin' delicious. Summer movie season usually asks you to apply the same lack of critical thinking to a host of bombastic Hollywood blockbusters.
Take, for example, director Renny Harlin's new thriller Mindhunters. Is it an exemplary piece of cinema filled with inventive scripting, clever dialogue and Oscar-caliber acting? Good lord, no! But it is, in its own junk food way, damnably entertaining.
Semi-Americanized Finlander Renny Harlin has forged himself an admirable career of keeping his head just above water. His résumé isn't filled with A-list films, but without his concerted efforts, the shelves of Blockbuster would be a lot more bare. Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Deep Blue Sea, Driven and Exorcist: The Beginning are all serviceable cineplex fillers, most of which could have been a hell of a lot worse had it not been for Harlin's more than serviceable skills. Not even the legendary misstep of Cutthroat Island (nearly $100 million to make, nearly $10 million in box office) was enough to derail Harlin's career for long. He's a hack, but he's a damn good hack. I'd put Harlin's talents up against those of a mega-budget moron like Michael Bay any day of the week.
Like a number of Harlin's films, Mindhunters has seen its fair share of behind-the-scenes troubles. Originally set for release in 2003, the film has been bedeviled by reconfigured ad campaigns, multiple re-edits and the current studio meltdown between Disney and Miramax. Nonetheless, it scored itself a fairly sweet release date just ahead of the Star Wars onslaught.
Despite a certain amount of audience trepidation (or, perhaps, because of it), Mindhunters rates as a surprisingly effective gobble-your-popcorn, grab-your-date, scream-cause-it's-fun crime/thriller/horror/action flick.
The film's far-fetched story line has a group of about-to-graduate FBI recruits being sent to a remote island to complete their final “training mission” under the supervision of unorthodox teacher Val Kilmer. (Oh, this ain't gonna turn out good.) Borrowing liberally from Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (not to mention John Carpenter's paranoid remake of The Thing), the plot has our protagonists being bumped off one by one. Since there's nobody else on the island, one of them must be the killer. A bullet-riddled game of “who do you trust” soon breaks out.
Our recruits are the usual gaggle of stereotypes like the cool leader (Christian Slater), the hot chick (Patricia Velasquez), the good-natured redneck (Eion Bailey), the handsome foreigner (Jonny Lee Miller), the handicapped guy (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the mysterious tough guy (LL Cool J) and the insecure chick with the secret past (Kathryn Morris). All are in training to become FBI profilers and are experts at getting inside the criminal mind. But will their skills be enough to unravel the complex web of clues and unmask the killer in their midst?
The setup is hardly original (or particularly believable), but Harlin races ahead like a runaway steam engine, giving audiences little time to ponder logical gaps. Like a ticking time bomb, Mindhunters ratchets up the thrill level to the bursting point. Stopping just short of the rapid/vapid MTV style, Harlin cobbles together a breathless shock machine that looks great and more than delivers on its promise of thrills, chills and gore galore.
The murders themselves are gruesomely original, with our killer setting up elaborate Rube Goldberg-style traps to mutilate, dismember, ventilate and otherwise cause grievous bodily harm to his/her intended victims. The film's gleefully nasty special effects don't pull any punches and end up making this much more of a gory horror flick than a polite police thriller.
The castmembers, though hardly A-listers, are all effective. The script is loaded with more red herrings than an Oslo fish market, but a few actors emerge as more-or-less-human. Morris supplies bit of drama, Collins scores a few laughs and Slater shows off his suddenly muscular butt. LL Cool J seems to fancy himself an action movie star and insists on spitting out the occasional Arnold Schwarzenegger-style quip--but even that seems like an amusing nod to those late-'80s nostalgists in the audience.
Armed with a bottomless bucket of popcorn and a bladder-busting orange soda, you could do worse than spending a hot summer night in the mindlessly entertaining company of this “CSI”-meets-Friday the 13th thriller.
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