Renny Harlin (the former Mr. Geena Davis) may be the last true drive-in movie director. Of course, drive-in movies barely exist anymore, but it’s clear that Harlin’s entertain-at-any-cost sensibility is powered by the B-movies of yesteryear. He embraces each and every one of his films, no matter how ill-conceived or poorly written, with a hyperkinetic glee that only Ritalin can tame. His best work — Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Die Hard 2 — boasts expert pacing, visual panache and a healthy dose of sadistic violence. The first 10 minutes of 1993’s Cliffhanger are as harrowing and thrilling as any action sequence put to film. The man is not without talent.
He is, however, without taste. Cutthroat Island, Driven and Exorcist: The Beginning prove that even the best of showmen can’t turn crap into gold.
Mindhunters, a film that has been scheduled and rescheduled for release half a dozen times (never a good sign), gives us the best and worst of Renny Harlin. Like his mutated Jaws rip-off, Deep Blue Sea, the director delivers a film that’s slick, utterly brainless and far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Seven would-be FBI profilers (including long-in-the-tooth Christian Slater and Jonny Lee Miller with a sporadic Southern accent) partake in a final serial killer “simulation” before graduation from the academy. Challenged by their egocentric professor (Val Kilmer) to apprehend a fictional psycho killer, the trainees are left on an island facility in the middle of nowhere. LL Cool J is along for the ride, as a veteran agent sent to evaluate Kilmer’s controversial teaching methods. Predictably, the students discover that a real killer is among them and, one by one, they’re picked off by a series of ghoulish mousetraps.
Harlin, a master of pacing, makes good use of the script’s ticking clock conceit, and pushes all the right paranoia buttons as the trainees’ suspicions lead them to point fingers (and guns) at one another. He also manages to stage an impressively brutal fight scene near the end of the film that actually upstages the protagonist’s final showdown with the killer.
The script by Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) has a few clever moments and manages to keep us guessing about the killer’s identity for most of the film. In most films with a large ensemble cast, the biggest stars tend to survive. Refreshingly, in Mindhunters no one is safe, no matter what their billing. As the body count rises, the murders become more gruesome, and the actions of the trainees grow increasingly reckless. During the film’s final act, the little logic that existed flies out the window, and Harlin relies on a cheap dramatic device, hoping to throw the audience off the scent, before the “big reveal.”
Billed as a suspense thriller, this update of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is more of a horror film disguised as a mystery. Harlin is far more interested in providing us with lurid violence and a stylish atmosphere than delivering satisfying intrigue, and is in no danger of eclipsing Christie. Instead, the film offers two hours of lowbrow, drive-in movie fun — which means, six months from now, it’ll make a good rental.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].