Mindhunters (United States/Netherlands/United Kingdom, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What should a viewer expect from a movie that has lain in limbo for more than two years while at least three aborted release dates passed it by? Pretty much what Mindhunters delivers. The only outstanding question is why Dimension decided to dump this film into theaters in May instead of February or August. The mystery/thriller, directed by Renny Harlin and scripted by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin adds a few unconventional twists to the tired "tracking down a serial killer" plot, but ends up outfoxing itself with a few too many narrative convolutions and contrivances. Mindhunters starts out strong - despite some clunky acting, the first hour is nicely paced and the time passes effortlessly. But the final 45 minute stretch is clumsy, inelegant, and repetitive.

There are two essential principles of motion picture mysteries: (1) the film must excel at misdirection, and (2) the film must know when to stop the misdirection and reveal the "truth." Mindhunters has a good grasp of precept #1, but doesn't have a clue about #2. Like an Agatha Cristie drenched in blood and hyped up on speed, Mindhunters throws suspicion on each of its characters and litters red herrings in its wake. Unfortunately, it keeps doing this well past the point of plausibility. The ending is a mess, with characters acting in ways just to make us think they're guilty, regardless of whether they are or not. After the closing credits have rolled, look back on the words and actions of some of the protagonists, and you'll see that they make no sense.

Jake Harris (Val Kilmer) is teaching a class in serial killer profiling for the FBI. For his final exam, he strands seven students and one "observer" to an island where they are given a weekend to solve a fake serial killing. J.D. Reston (Christian Slater) is the team leader. Working with him are Gabe Jensen (LL Cool J), the "observer" from Philadelphia; Lucas Harper (Jonny Lee Miller), a typical tough guy; Sara Moore (Kathryn Morris), a meek woman with a fear of water; Nicole Willis (Patricia Velasquez), J.D.'s lover; Vince Sherman (Clifton Collins Jr.), who's confined to a wheelchair; and Bobby Whitman (Eion Bailey) and Rafe Perry (Will Kemp), a pair of interchangeable individuals distinguishable only by their accents. Of course, this exercise turns into more than a test, and, as the body count mounts, the survivors come to the chilling realization that one of them must be the killer. But which one? Suspicion moves from one to the next to another as new clues are unearthed.

One of Mindhunters' strengths is that it's difficult to guess who the culprit is because Harlin and his screenwriters don't play fair with the audience. They keep changing the rules to keep us off-balance. There are no obvious suspects or inarguable innocents. Harlin wants us to be unsure until the big "reveal," but he overplays his hand. The misdirection process goes on for too long, and, by the time we learn the killer's identity, things have grown too confusing and we have lost interest. For a film that starts out with so much promise, this one goes off the track in a big way.

The only actor to distinguish himself in any way is LL Cool J, who conveys a sense of presence even though he's working with an underwritten character. No one else leaves an impression. Val Kilmer and Christian Slater don't have much screen time, and what they do when they're in front of the camera is forgettable. Most of the others play interchangeable corpses. Jonny Lee Miller seems bored, and offers a horrible accent. Kathryn Morris, in her pre-"Cold Case" days, illustrates why it's not a good idea to underplay a character in a thriller.

As is his trademark, Harlin (who, after successfully directing Die Hard 2, was regarded as an A-list action filmmaker) proves capable of generating high voltage suspense when the script calls for it. In particular, there's one sequence involving electricity and water. But he's not as adept at gradually building character-oriented tension, and that attribute is crucial to Mindhunters' success. Without it, the final 45 minutes come across as a poorly realized and ill conceived muddle, and that ruins the entire experience. Gimmicks, such as frequent cribs from the TV show "CSI," don't improve things - they are desperate attempts to keep an audience's attention from flagging. It's not hard to see why this movie lingered on Dimension's shelves for long. Calling its theatrical prospects "grim" seems optimistic.

Mindhunters (United States/Netherlands/United Kingdom, 2004)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1