I've said it before: Never trust a picture whose title the studio can't spell.
The name of this 2004 theatrical release is "Mindhunters," one word. But the packaging clearly spells it on the front of the keep case, the spine, and the chapter insert as "Mind Hunters," two words. You wonder if maybe somebody doing the promotion for the film should have actually watched the thing?
In any case, it's no wonder this movie did poorly at the box office, despite its high-profile cast--Val Kilmer, Christian Slater, LL Cool J--and its veteran action director, Renny Harlin ("Nightmare on Elm Street 4," "Die Hard 2," "Cliffhanger," "Cutthroat Island," "Deep Blue Sea," "Driven," "Exorcist: The Beginning"). With the exception of a little more sex and violence, courtesy of an R rating, there is really little in the story that a person couldn't see almost any night of the week on TV. Think "CSI: Miami" meets PBS's "Mystery," with a lot of "Friday the 13th" and Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" ("Ten Little Indians") thrown in for good measure. In other words, the movie borrows from everyone.
So, here's the situation: Val Kilmer plays a tough, hard-nosed FBI instructor, Jake Harris, who teaches a class of seven potential FBI psychological profilers. For their final exam, Harris deposits his team on an isolated island, where they are to spend a weekend tracking down a mock serial killer called "the Puppeteer" in a mock-up city called "Crimetown." In addition to the regular class members, an observer also comes along for the experience. Once Harris leaves the island, the team will have no contact with the outside world: no phones, no Internet, no transportation off. Their job is to cooperate among themselves, to work as a team, to pick up clues, and to discover the mystery Harris has set up for them.
And then the real murders start, and they are all of them most grisly. One by one, the cast diminishes. They search the island thoroughly and find no one else there. They begin to think that maybe one of them is killing the others or that Harris has gone mad is killing them off himself.
The idea is that these FBI students are supposed to be learning to profile killers; but the tables are reversed, and the killer is profiling each of them according to their psychological profiles. That's the most clever twist in a story that is otherwise quite mundane.
The opening sequence contains any number of red herrings and phony surprises that set the tone for the rest of the film. Harris tells his students that their most lethal weapon is not their firearm but their brain. Still, it was the opening gambit that was the only part of the movie I enjoyed.
Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Will Kemp, Jonny Lee Miller, Kathryn Moore, Christian Slater, and Patricia Velasquez play the class members. LL Cool J (also using his real name, James Todd Smith, in the credits, possibly to reinforce the idea that he is taking acting seriously) plays the observer. However, it's with the team members that the movie's trouble starts. In order for a thriller of this kind to generate any suspense at all, we have to care about the characters; we have to worry about their survival. In this case, as in so many slasher movies, we're never introduced to the characters well enough or given enough background on them for us to be at all interested in them. They are simply interchangeable faces. The one thing they have in common is that they are all attractive and bright, yet that's not enough to involve us in their safety. As in most slasher films, the only element we do care about is the order of their deaths. Even who is committing the dastardly deeds is a secondary concern.
After a lot of psychobabble, the movie finally gets underway with the first murder about a half an hour in. Once the action starts, director Harlin knows how to keep it going, which is to his credit. Unfortunately, merely keeping up a good pace in a story that is going nowhere is not enough.
The killer is smug and leaves warnings in advance: the future time of each of his murders. We get a lot of close-ups of the characters' faces as they look from one to another. In appropriate drawing-room fashion, they all look suspicious. Take your pick which one or none might be the killer; it doesn't matter. There are no heroes here, and no one is too obviously a villain. Why should we care?
Since the killer is so arbitrary--it could be anyone or no one--I was hoping that when the killer was finally revealed, he would say, "And now for something completely different," and John Cleese would step out of the shadows with a machete in his hand. Alas, it doesn't happen, but anything would have helped.
Does the group stay together out in the open at each appointed hour? Of course not. That would be too easy. Most of the time they go off in separate directions, in time-honored Hollywood tradition.
The film's worst fault, though, is that it gets progressively more ridiculous, more far-fetched, more preposterous as it goes along. We can almost accept the premise, itself rather improbable, but after the murders start, we can see things going downhill fast. The killings are the kind that depend on precise timing, knowing exactly where everybody is going to be every moment, the killer one of those omniscient types who rigs up every trap so elaborately that in real life it would take days but this person does it presumably in minutes, and without anybody's knowing.
So, for all its pseudo logic, "Mindhunters" is just as implausible as any "Halloween" sequel. The characters are cardboard, the plot is trite, and the music is blaring. Harlin does what he can with a hackneyed script that goes nowhere.
By the time it was over, I had to ask, "Is that all there is?"
The DVD retains most of the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in a very wide transfer, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. A relatively high bit rate ensures that detail is fairly sharp, delineation crisp, and colors reasonably deep. It's a good-looking picture, actually, if just a touch glassy. Hues are limited to the director's often dark, metallic palette, but facial tones are mostly natural.
While the Dolby Digital 5.1 processing is a tad on the bright side, it is quite clear, with an ample bass response. It is also effective in its manipulation of surround sound in elements like rain drops, noises in the night, and musical ambience enhancement. So, from an audiovisual standpoint the transfer excels.
For me, the best part of the disc was Renny Harlin's commentary. It's pointed, polished, professional, informative, and highly enjoyable. I recommend that anyone interested in filmmaking listen to the director's comments, no matter if you think the film itself is worth your time. Among the extras you'll also find a seven-minute featurette, "Profiling Manhunters," a behind-the-scenes affair that is typical of what most studios do to promote their product. Then, there is a four-minute stunt sequence, explaining how the filmmakers created one of the fight scenes; and "A Director's Walk Through Crimetown," three minutes following Harlin around the main set.
Finally, there are twenty-four scene selections; a chapter insert; and, at start-up only, some brief sneak peeks at a number of other Dimension films. The disc includes English and French as spoken language options, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Val Kilmer, an actor I admire greatly, appeared in four films in 2004: one that was pretty good but nobody saw, "Spartan"; two that nobody saw for good reason, "Stateside" and "Mindhunters"; and one that wasn't worth seeing, "Alexander." He deserves a better agent.
"Mindhunters" is a well-made film by an action director who knows his business. It's just that there's not much here to work with. The movie plows no new ground, develops no new characters, presents no new thrills. It just plods along through familiar territory, offering gratuitous blood and gore in place of genuine excitement. I can't say I liked it much.