Filmed three years ago, and set for release more than a year ago, “Mindhunters” proves hardly worth the wait. While a report last summer that Dimension had decided to send the pic direct to vid was premature, its release in U.S. theaters nearly a year after a quiet bow in limited Euro and Latin American territories will likely only delay the inevitably quick exit to ancillary; this ridiculous would-be thriller about FBI profiler trainees trapped in a match to the death will scare up few bodies in theaters.
To put the release delay in perspective, after finishing their work on this film, co-star LL Cool J acted in 2003’s “S.W.A.T.” and director Renny Harlin re-shot “The Exorcist: The Beginning.”
Harlan may have been hoping that by re-teaming with Cool J (who is also credited here by his proper name, James Todd Smith, and who worked with the director on 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea”) “Mindhunters” would revisit that thriller’s worthwhile conceit of characters trapped in isolation. Instead, the best Wayne Kramer’s and Kevin Brodbin’s script can conjure is yet another replay of “Ten Little Indians,” with an FBI agent going murderously off the reservation and killing his own group.
An apparent raid on a serial killer’s house by trainee-agents J.D. (Christian Slater) and Sara (Kathryn Morris) is just a simulation by eccentric teacher Jake Harris (Val Kilmer), driving home the fine points of profiling. Sara and fellow student Vince (Clifton Collins Jr.) are getting signs they won’t graduate, while the rest of their class has long concluded that Harris’ sadistic pedagogy is just a little too weird for the bureau.
The long-locked Kilmer, on screen for what amounts to a glorified cameo, resembles a late 19th century Parisian artist more than an FBI man, and his last assignment, to send his pupils to an isolated bunker on Oniega Island off the Virginia shore resembles something out of a frustrated novelist’s workbook more than a bonafide test.
Joined by Gabe (Cool J), who’s said to be with the Philly P.D. and just here as an observer, the crew discovers a tiny island dominated by a concrete structure and a backlot-type set of an all-American town that curiously resembles the town center of Thomas Vinterberg’s “Dear Wendy.” Harris departs with a warning that they’ll soon be visited by “The Puppeteer,” a fictitious serial killer they must hunt and subdue.
Team is full of clean-cut guys like Bobby (Eion Bailey), Rafe (Will Kemp) and Lucas (Jonny Lee Miller), with J.D. assigned as leader and Sara joined by another, feistier gal, Nicole (Patricia Velasquez). But next day’s class goes lethal quickly, as J.D. is killed, care of a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that would have taken weeks to prepare.
Exploding boats and chemically altered cups of joe kill off more students, all cued by the killer’s penchant for leaving watches set at the appointed time of murder. With no ideas in its very little mind, “Mindhunters” soon becomes a document of a sick person’s taste for bizarre engineering and gory death, with the assumption that supposedly well-trained FBI agents will simply step into his carefully laid traps.
Conveniently, Sara suddenly blossoms as a true profiler, gradually racking up clues and forming a picture of a killer intent on exploiting each person’s weaknesses. The script exploits every tired cabin-fever cliche, including group members pointing guns in each other’s faces at a moment’s notice.
The script substitutes device for suspense with four suspects — and one of them twice –appearing to be the culprit at one time or another. The illogic of the situation is so extreme that the final confrontation plays like an afterthought.
Miraculously, Morris emerges fairly unscathed, which isn’t the case with her luckless cast members, most of whom have terrible lines, die painfully and are last seen in dreadfully plastic-looking dead person makeup. Harlin seems to have forgotten what made Cool J so refreshingly funny in “Deep Blue Sea,” and leaves him stranded with bland, tough-guy scenes. Miller’s character makes as little sense as the actor’s changing dialect.
Pic’s tech work won’t be hurt on video. While Robert Gantz’s widescreen lensing will lose something in the transition, sub-par production values won’t look half so bad. And one can remotely lower the volume button in the living room so that composer Tuomas Kantelinen’s bombastic score isn’t quite so ear-splitting.