Director : Renny Harlin
Screenplay : Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin (story by Wayne Kramer)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Eion Bailey (Bobby Whitman), Clifton Collins Jr. (Vince Sherman), Will Kemp (Rafe Perry), Val Kilmer (Jake Harris), Jonny Lee Miller (Lucas Harper), Kathryn Morris (Sara Moore), Christian Slater (J.D. Reston), LL Cool J (Gabe Jensen), Patricia Velasquez (Nicole Willis), Cassandra Bell (Jen)
The bomb that was Cutthroat Island (1995) is probably the best thing that ever happened to Renny Harlin. He may not see it that way, since the ill-fated pirate adventure was intended to cement his status as an A-list action auteur after his back-to-back successes with Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 (1990) and Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger (1993), but was instead an expensive fiasco that ending up sinking Carolco, its production company. However, it wasn't enough of a disaster to fully derail Harlin; rather, he was simply pushed back into junkier B-movie territory where the budgets are smaller and the films are therefore less risky.
And this is where Harlin thrives. More so than any other action director, Harlin is able to take mediocre and often outlandishly stupid scripts and punch them up into endlessly watchable guilty-pleasure gold. When too much is asked of him, we get indigestible garbage like Exorcist: The Beginning (2004); but, when he's matched with the right material, you get something as satisfying as the ludicrously entertaining smart-shark thriller Deep Blue Sea (1999) -- the cinematic equivalent of junk food.
His latest, Mindhunters, which was actually shot before the Exorcist prequel but has, for various reasons, sat on a shelf for the past two years, fits quite well into Harlin's comfort zone: It has a credulity-straining plot, half-baked characters, retread ideas, and mostly second-tier actors. The basic scenario is that eight FBI criminal profilers-in-training are flown out to a remote, government-owned island for one last training simulation. Anyone who's read Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None will immediately recognize where the story is headed once the characters start getting knocked off by an unseen murderous mastermind who may or may not be among them. Each death is achieved with an elaborate trap that is set off by the victim; thus, the killer doesn't even have to be there for the victims to be dispatched by arrows, liquid nitrogen, electrical accidents, or, in one particularly nasty scenario, acid. Original it ain't, although the idea of serial-killer profilers getting killed off by a serial killer is an admittedly interesting twist.
One of Harlin's best traits as a director is that he gives his films a slick, stylized look without sliding over into a Tony Scott-style visual morass. He is also more than adept at putting together gritty action sequences with a liberal sprinkling of jarring cuts and extreme close-ups, but he avoids falling into the Michael Bay pit of confusing, brain-rattling choreography. Harlin keeps the pace moving steadily, relentlessly forward (leaving no time or room for subtlety, but who wants that in a film like this?), and while you can certainly balk at many of the contrivances in Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin's script, you can never accuse Mindhunters of being boring. The mystery of who's behind the murders is enough to keep you involved, even when it becomes increasingly obvious who it is (although there are a few more narrative tricks up the proverbial sleeve than you might expect).
Along with the relatively unknown actors who fill the principle roles, Harlin sprinkles a few recognizable faces, including Christian Slater as the group's de factor leader, Val Kilmer as their possibly unstable mentor, and LL Cool J as a Philadelphia police investigator who's just along for the ride (or so he claims). These actors give the film a respectable wattage of star power and gives the marketing department some name to put along the top of the poster. But, more importantly, they offer plenty of opportunities to fulfill Harlin's "Samuel L. Jackson Rule" of on-screen deaths: The movie's biggest star doesn't necessarily make it to the final reel.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Dimension Films