The trailer promises a sophisticated “C.S.I.” meets Saw thriller, then shatters that illusion with four words: directed by Renny Harlin.
Jake Harris (Val Kilmer) is a hard-nosed intellectual working for the FBI to train up new profilers especially for serial killer investigations. His methods are intense, involving overly-realistic live-fire scenarios often rigged so that participants fail but still learn something. On the eve of their graduation, Harris takes his current close of hopefuls to an island reserved for Navy war games and other uses. The classmates are abandoned on the isle with enough provisions to survive with and instructed to profile a fictional killer based on a staged scene that would be found later the following morning. In the morning, however, they find out that a real killer is loose on the island… and possibly one of them.
The very idea of this must have sounded great on paper, or even still after the first draft. Like recent Dark Castle flicks (13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill), a bunch of people in a box under stress is fun to watch, but Dark Castle explains away much with a supernatural element. Mindhunters, by comparison, is intent upon building tension no matter what the cost, including plausibility itself; with no supernatural element, audiences have to believe that all the traps and everything was masterminded and accomplished realistically. Whether this is the fault of writer Wayne Kramer (who helped write last year’s The Cooler, one of our favorites around here) or director Renny Harlin, we’re going to lean on the later.
Harlin’s great at wrenching tension out of a scenario but he just can’t seem to stop winking at the audience to take himself, his characters, or the subject matter seriously. Everything must be over-the-top! And instead of tough, know-their-stuff operatives (think television’s “Mission Impossible”), we get a cast comparable to your average slasher flick. With players like Christian Slater, “Cold Case” star Kathryn Morris, The Mummy‘s Patricia Velasquez, and LL Cool J, everyone has an obvious skill (gadgets, guns, numbers, computers) and an exploitable weaknesses (cocky, smoker, timid, coffee-drinker) so that the killer kills in accordance with the character. After the first hour, two things are certain: the killer is probably channeling Freddy Krueger but it’s the audience that’s asleep.
In the end, the title is as misleading as the trailer. “Mindkillers” or “Braincell Busters” would have been more appropriate in trying to explain how anyone could have set up so many traps undetected, but what did you expect for a film set on Rube Goldberg island in the sleepy town of Red Herring? Somewhere underneath it all is a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick dying to get out, but it’s pretty hard to find for everything that’s been heaped on top of it. Want to know who the killer is and get out of the theater early? Look for the person who smuggled a bag full of remotes, triggers, poison, and crossbow bolts onto an overcrowded helicopter (which, of course, is completely missed by the people becoming profilers for the FBI).
(a one and a half skull recommendation out of four)