A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, R, 106 mins.
Lucas Harper: Johnny Lee Miller / Bobby Whitman: Eion Bailey / Gabe Jensen: LL Cool J
/ Vince Sherman: Clifton Collins Jr. / Rafe Perry: Will Kemp / Nicole Willis: Patricia Velasquez
/ Jake Harris: Val Kilmer / Sara Moore: Kathryn Morris / J.D. Reston: Christian Slater
The so-called “mindhunters” of the FBI - which is industry slang for their Investigative Support Unit - are probably among the unsung heroes of law enforcement.
You see, these are the men and women that have assisted both state and local police forces in cracking some of the United States’ most prevalent and infamous serial murder cases. Mindhunters keenly specialize in understanding and, most crucially, profiling the chemistry and psychological workings of the criminal minds of the most notorious serial killers. They try to surmise how these monsters behave and act by sort of thinking like them. Certainly, these ace crime fighters are a well trained lot, as they see both their share of fieldwork and intensive research into some of history’s most disgraceful killers.
Renny Harlin’s newest thriller – MINDHUNTERS – dives into the world of these masters of human profiling, but it also sets the audience up for a rather intriguing premise. What if you were a member of an elite group of cadets who were training for their final assignment and were suddenly placed in a situation where both you and all of your fellow colleagues eventually become suspects in a murder? Notwithstanding that, but what if it appears that you and the other cadets are the only ones at a top secret training compound and the possibility of other, outside interference is remote? In essence, it is you and the other trainees working in a tightly regimented area where no one else has influence. So, what if bodies then suddenly start to pile up? Quite frankly, if you have a room full of people that can pick one another apart based on things as subtle as body language and all have valid suspicions of one another for being a serial killer, then this creates one enormously tense situation.
That, in a nutshell, is the overall premise of MINDHUNTERS, which is a thriller that mixes in and balances various literary and cinematic conventions that some of us are, no doubt, familiar with. The film works as a hybrid piece of the better elements of Agatha Christie who-dunnits with more modern serial killer fictions. It also crosses these elements equally with a testosterone induced and kinetic action film. The latter element is not so much a surprise here in the film (Harlin previously helmed such high octane entertainments like DIE HARD 2 and CLIFFHANGER) and MINDHUNTERS has its fair share of action sequences of both visceral energy and stomach churning gore.
Sure, the film’s action set pieces may feel somewhat routine, but MINDHUNTERS works overall primarily as an exercise in paranoia, confusion, and intense suspicion. In terms of leading the audience to one answer and then pulling the rug from underneath them, the film is mostly successful and keeps us guessing generally until the final minutes. The result is a film that is both ingenious and far too ingenious for its own good (these types of films always preclude elaborate explanations and justifications by the killers in the film’s third act), but it nevertheless exists as an exercise in intriguing us and drawing us into it’s story to its final conclusion.
Surprisingly, MINDHUNTERS is a good film despite its torrid history of coming to the big screen. It was originally set for a theatrical release way, way back in 2003...then in early 2004...then in the fall of 2004... and, yes, then in early 2005. The film received positive advance audience test screenings, which would usually dictate an early and expeditious release with sufficient fanfare and word of mouth. Yet, the film languished in an effort by the studio to further work on the marketing. Unfortunately for MINDHUNTERS, it found itself being put on an extended hiatus by Dimensions Films until it was finally given a national release in May of 2005. By this time the film was barely a whisper in the ear of most filmgoers and, ironically, a superior and aggressive marketing campaign was not forthcoming. This is too bad, because in the context of films that have seen long delays making it to their first theatrical release, MINDHUNTERS is a modestly entertaining thriller done with flair, polish, and confidence that deserved better.
On a certain fundamental level, MINDHUNTERS feels unique with its story, but is mostly a retread of one of fiction's most dependable and relentlessly overused formulas. Basically, it gathers all of its characters in one isolated location and separates them conveniently from all others from the outside world, which easily eliminates influence from any other source. Then, while people gather in this location that is impenetrable, bodies turn up one after the other until - you guessed it - everyone could obviously be a suspect. Accusations are thrown out with equal tenacity and veracity by all members of the party to one another and deep and penetrating suspicions ensue. All of this culminates to a third act where only a few are left alive and the killer is finally revealed, to which he unveils his own sinister and twisted plans. Because of this, MINDHUNTERS is Agatha Christie through and through. It also takes great pains at demonstrating some of the more vile and disturbing ways of killing people, which are shown in typical, Harlinesque detail. Sure, MINDHUNTERS takes its premise from the most famous of Christie’s stories, but it still is a violent, modern action film.
All of Harlin’s usual suspects are assembled in a wonderfully realized location. More conventional murder mysteries would feel content with placing its personas in more familiar settings, but this film assembles its characters at a remote island that is meticulously rigged up to look like a real town. However, it is equipped with surveillance cameras and high tech gadgets so that FBI trainers can keep close eyes on their prospective cadets and see how well they would handle any potential, real life problems. For what it is worth, it seems like a normal training ground for its novice detectives and a meticulous simulation. Unfortunately, when the FBI students start to see themselves beheaded, drugged, impaled, electrocuted, and frozen to death by large amounts of carefully placed super-cooled gases, then you just know that something sure as hell is not right.
But…all of the cadets went to the island to simply engage in a training session of correctly profiling a serial killer on the loose. Yet, when the death toll takes an alarming turn for the worse, will the students be able to use their training to profile one another and arrive at the identity of the real killer, seeing as it just has to be one of them? Val Kilmer plays Jack Harris, who is teaching the young up-and-comers in the intricate art of killer profiling. The island training facility is the location for his grand final exam, of sorts, where he makes the students think they are there to solve the mystery of a faux-serial killer. He pretty much strands seven of them there with one outside “observer”.
J.D. (Christian Slater) prides himself as the team’s leader. The other team members are the usual ragtag personas that make up a emblematic student body. There is Lucas (Jonny Lee Miller), the agitated and ill-tempered brute; Sara (Kathryn Morris), the shy, soft-spoken, and incredibly timid woman; Nicole (Patricia Valasquez) the fiery Latino babe; Vince (Clifton Collins Jr.), who is strapped to a wheelchair, but is not too handicapped to like packing his .45 automatic at all times; and finally there is the observer, Gabe (LL Cool J). Of course, when the so-called exercise turns deadly really fast and when the students realize that one of them must be a real serial killer, they soon conclude that they all have to work together to ultimately hunt down and capture…well…one of themselves.
Okay, MINDHUNTERS is not an engaging film thriller on a character or a story level. The film, for the most part, is an intriguing and invigorating mystery in the way it successfully creates an aura of intense and intimate mistrust. The characters are all of the stock variety and have been personified in countless other similar thrillers, but Harlin gets a considerable amount of mileage in the way he creates a singular mood of dread and dark paranoia, which lumbers around every minute of the film.
The script teases the audience incessantly and manipulatively. Is the teacher the serial killer? Surely, he is not seen again by the students, so he must be in on it. But then again, what about the mysterious “observer” who has just turned up at the last minute to work with the students? He seems a bit too introverted with his personal details to be trusted. Then again, what about the withdrawn and meager-tempered female cadet that saw one member of her family lose their life in a vicious murder that the FBI could not solve? Does she harbor any vengeful yearnings to seek atonement for the lack of ability in the bureau for handling her sister’s murder? Or, what about that wheelchair bound guy with those beady eyes and the itchy trigger finger? He found out ahead of the training mission that he was to be scratched by the teacher for admission to the FBI’s profiling team. Is he upset enough to kill everyone? Hmmmmm...
MINDHUNTERS is always appealing and exciting on those age-old levels of inviting the audience to approach each and every character with a respectable level of incredulity. We begin to trust certain characters and we eventually lose that trust and place our confidence in those we once thought, beyond a shadow of a doubt, were guilty. In this way, the film creates a never-ending pendulum of likely and unlikely suspects. The film principle of the law of economy of characters sort of applies and does not apply. Yes, we must - though the course of the film - filter through all of the cadets and finally arrive at the real killer. Conversely, the film does not eliminate certain suspects and arrive the likely ones by sheer superficial motives alone. The killer is not the one character that gets the least screen time (which often is the case) nor is it the character that seems the most obvious to the audience. MINDHUNTERS, as a result, is a bit smarter in this regard.
As an efficient who-dunnit, the film creates genuine interest. It masterfully plays around with audience misdirection to the point where we really don’t know who the culprit is. It’s just some of the other details around the film’s tense tone that are a bit hard to swallow. With each new death more red herrings are deliciously thrown in to create more confusion, but the narrative soon gets a bit too out of control for its own good, especially in its conclusion. Plausibility gives way to increasing implausibility, especially in the film's egregious and despicable ways it shows the booby traps that kills the cadets one by one. The more I thought about the dastardly and grizzly death traps the more startlingly they felt in the improbable ingenuity. These murder traps are spread out all over the island so sparsely apart that it does seem highly unlikely that the real killer would have been able to construct, set up, and implement them all by him or herself. On top of that, while trying to contemplate the believability of all of the traps, one slowly begins to lose sight of the motives behind them all by the end of the film. Yes, there is a madman behind it all and we truly want to know who he or she is, but the film’s lack of verisimilitude with their methodology hampers the film’s overall effect.
Despite these faults, MINDHUNTERS ultimately deserves my humble recommendation because it is able to appeal to different people on different levels. Agatha Christie fans will easily be lured into its story. Thriller fans will appreciate the film’s intensity and “shock” moments. Hard-edged action fans will find no problem staying in their seats for the film’s well-orchestrated moments of mayhem. Harlin also should be credited for infusing MINDHUNTERS with a generally pleasing balance of suspense, intrigue and unapologetic carnage. The film is kind of schlocky fun and a passable entry into the murder mystery genre. It has a sneaky and scrappy energy to its proceedings that kept me in my seat. At least at face value, MINDHUNTERS has no pretensions to be anything more significant than a well-oiled popcorn entertainment.