In the not so distant past, a film such as “Masterminds” would have been just the kind of clever little programmer to strike the public fancy and generate upbeat B.O. returns. But in today’s glutted marketplace, the best this nifty thriller can expect is an OK, if brief, theatrical life followed by an extended cable rotation and brisk sales on video.
Freely culling from such engaging antecedents as “Three Days of the Condor,” “Toy Soldiers” and “Die Hard,” the filmmakers have fashioned a lively hostage yarn and an offbeat battle of intellect and stamina.
The antagonists are a seemingly benign security systems guru (Patrick Stewart) named Ralph (with that peculiar Fiennes pronunciation) Bentley and Ozzie Paxton (Vincent Kartheiser), a perennial problem teenager. The former has experience, manpower and greed at his disposal; the lad is a resourceful amateur. In terms of movie dynamics, it’s sort of an even match.
Script utilizes the ever reliable “right guy in the wrong place” framework. Ozzie, on a make-good to his father (Matt Craven), grudgingly takes his stepsister (Katie Stuart) to the tony Shady Glen private school, from which he’d been bounced for a bit of scientific hijinx. The presence of principal Maloney (Brenda Fricker) brings it all back to him, and he repairs to the basement to concoct a new prank.
It’s at that moment that Bentley — hired to install a new security network — reveals his true intent. His commandos arrive, seal the school (with Ozzie in the cellar) and, after a show of force with the police, make their demands known. Bentley wants mucho millions for the return of the scions of some of the richest families in America. Because he “wrote the book” on counter-terrorism, the authorities’ every step is anticipated and thwarted. But the youthful opponent never read that text, and his instinct for survival upends the otherwise perfect hostage-taking scheme.
Floyd Byars’ screenplay is rich in machination and characterization, though a tad thin on motivation. It has a large, engaging cast and the kind of breathless pacing appropriate to the material and its narrative shortcuts.
Director Roger Christian makes excellent use of the fictional school and its grounds. The maze of rooms, passageways, ducts and sewers is a perfect physical equivalent to the computer graphics and games meant to be Ozzie’s grounding in combat and strategy. Christian has a keen sense of how to use the widescreen format ironically, putting his characters into claustrophobic spaces and turning the screws. The strong overall tech credits belie pic’s modest budget.
The rogues’ gallery of performers ups the ante of the cat-and-mouse game even more. Stewart approaches his role with the quiet malice and idiosyncrasies one associates with James Mason’s great villains.
Newcomer Kartheiser definitely has the goods, exuding a charisma that translates into a rooting interest in the otherwise impudent teen. The supporting cast is lively, ranging from Fricker as a tough Molly Brown type and the ever dependable Jay Brazeau to eccentric Bentley gang members neatly played by Callum Keith Rennie and David Paul Grove.
“Masterminds” is more than the sausage-factory no-brainer one expects, with wit and craft that provide welcome tonic during the late summer season of fire sale releases.