Wednesday, May 18, 2005

REVIEW: Mindhunters

What would Agatha Christie think if she knew that the "isolated-location/big-cast/unknown-killer" breed of murder mystery she perfected would one day unwitting loose upon the world what is now called the "slasher movie?" Perverse as it may be to think of linking, however broadly, the lineage of Jason Vorhees to that of Hercule Poirot, the proof is inescapable. And now we have "Mindhunters," which at first resembles a lurid police procedural before revealing itself as yet another variation on the same themes and beats all descending from "Friday the 13th," which in turn descends from the unbroken line of such stories going all the way back to "Ten Little Indians," "The Mousetrap" and the like. The only question that really remains, for me, is whether it's Christie or the genre itself that owes the other the bigger apology.

A mixed bag of an improbably dopey script and a collection of gleefully elaborate (and equally improbable) murder sequences, "Mindhunters" is exactly the sort of project that typicall screams out for the hand of director Renny Harlin. A talented visual technician, Harlin has for a long time excelled in helping bad projects become uneven but frequently entertaining movies (see "Deep Blue Sea.") This is not to say that "Mindhunters" is good, but that what moments of actual fun and overall competent execution it has are likely Harlin's doing.

This film has been sitting on the shelf at Dimension for about three years now. You can tell it right away in that it's cast of main characters, a team of FBI agents-in-training, are all Profilers which, you'll remember, was the law enforcement branch that most fascinated Hollywood three years ago, before "CSI." If this was a new film, they'd all be in forensics. Oh, well...

In any case, the premise of the film is that this team of undergrad-agents (roll call: Hot Chick, Smart Chick, Wheelchair Guy, Nice Guy, Cool Guy, Nerdy Guy, Black Guy, Christian Slater, etc.) are all having their big profiling "final exam" under hardass mentor Val Kilmer, and why yes, he IS an agency lone-wolf known for "unorthodox methods." Go fig, huh? The big test involves the team being dumped overnight on a big model-city on an offshore island, where they will attempt to profile a made-up killer called "Puppetmaster" based on clues staged by Kilmer. But the "game" is over before it begins: One of the team is killed by an elaborate booby-trap, and the writing is on the wall: There's a killer among us, no way out, and so on and so forth.

You can plot it out from there: Characters argue, make up, accuse, theorize, bond, split up, etc., traps are sprung and kills are made at the usual rate, until there are few enough surviving characters for one of them to be revealed as the baddie at which point the film devolves into A.) a shootout B.) a fistfight C.) yet another reworking of "playing possum D.) all of the above.

If nothing else, the film is honest and upfront about it's increasingly implausible murder-traps being the stars of the show, and even more honest about how ridiculous such stuff has had to become in order to show us something new: In a rare moment of pure, refined self-honesty on the part of a B-grade thriller, the "inititial"trap is set off by, yes, a row of falling dominos. As the film progresses, characters bite it at the mercy of electrified flooding, spear guns, rigged pistols and even an eye-popping "are you KIDDING!?" moment involving a new-millenium variation on exploding cigars.

It goes without saying, naturally, that you can easily spot the killer by asking yourself which character seems to have the least reason to exist in the film otherwise; and it's equally true that you might even guess the killer's motive by asking yourself what the stupidest possible explaination for becoming a serial killer might be. Coincidentally, a movie theater marquee thats part of the fake-town's decor constantly advertises a showing of "The Third Man," a reference which never pays off as cleverly as it might have.

Oh, one more thing. Since I heard a lot of people doing the "who's that!!??" bit over the attractive brunette, for the record: The actress is Patricia Velasquez, whom you might remember as Anak Su-namun from the "Mummy" movies. Yeah, "the one in the dress," now you remember.