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A smooth, intriguing opening and a predictable but emotionally satisfying home stretch bookend helmer Morten Tyldum's otherwise by-the-numbers Norwegian thriller "Headhunters."

With: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnove Macody Lund, Julie Olgaard, Eivind Sander, Daniel Bratterud. (Norwegian, English, Russian dialogue)

A smooth, intriguing opening and a predictable but emotionally satisfying home stretch bookend helmer Morten Tyldum’s otherwise by-the-numbers Norwegian thriller “Headhunters.” Based on Jo Nesbo’s eponymous bestseller, the slickly assembled project stars local name thesp Aksel Hennie as the story’s man on the run, an insecure but successful recruitment specialist who moonlights as an art thief — until a big score goes awry. Though unlikely to match international B.O. numbers of co-producer Yellowbird’s “Millennium” films, “Hunters” should hit targets as a home-entertainment item. Pic already sold to several Euro territories and Magnolia in the U.S., which is eyeing a fall release.

Marketing a film filled with at times blackly comic violence might prove tricky in Norway, where it goes out Aug. 26, in the wake of recent tragic events. Elsewhere this should be straight-up Scandi genre fare, with enough graphic bloodshed, nudity and sex to ensure a hard “R” rating.

In the sleekly filmed and edited opening sequence, a balaclava-wearing Roger Brown (Hennie) is seen slipping into an affluent home to steal a canvas while, in v.o., he explains the rules that guide any good art thief. The film will actually turn into a feature-length demonstration of rule number five: “Eventually, you’ll either steal an artwork so expensive you never need to work again, or you’ll get caught.”

But before it sends Brown running, pic’s nimble, half-hour intro convincingly sets up the protag’s meek, overcompensating character and the neat way in which Brown’s headhunter job dovetails with his second, more dangerous occupation. Though the adapted screenplay, credited to Ulf Ryberg (“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”) and Lars Gudmestad (“Liverpool Goalie”), uses pure pop psychology 101, Hennie’s John Doe-like qualities and entertaining narration make it hard not to root for this slightly dorky Everyman with a plan.

Brown’s big score involves a Rubens painting in the Oslo apartment of Dane Clas Grave (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who also happens to be the perfect candidate for an executive post Brown needs to fill. Almost disturbingly good-looking and suave, Grave is the polar opposite of Brown, so it’s no surprise the mark is often one step ahead of the thief.

Midsection is basically one long, well-executed but hardly original chase through the wet and dirty Norwegian countryside. Tight focus on Brown and Grave highlights the narrative’s cat-and-mouse nature but also barely leaves room for dead ends or red herrings — which could help keep auds guessing about where all this is headed; it’s clear from early on that each supporting character onscreen will either almost immediately end up dead or live just long enough to provide crucial information later on.

Nonetheless, Hennie generates enough interest in his character’s plight to keep auds hooked. The thesp even manages to inject a note of utter loneliness and melancholy following an impressive car-crash sequence and a painful attempt to shave his head. As his opponent, Coster-Waldau is efficient but more one-note, while Eivind Sander, as a sex-crazed accomplice of Brown, is the otherwise solid ensemble’s standout.

As per the closing credits, the film’s helicopter shots are actually from Yellowbird’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The rest of the tech package is smooth.

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Production: A Magnolia Pictures (in U.S.)/Nordisk Filmdistribusjon (in Norway) release of Friland Film, Yellowbird Norge presentation and production, in association with ARD Degeto, Nordisk Film, with the participation of SVT, 2. (International sales: Trustnordisk, Hvidovre, Denmark.) Produced by Asle Vatn, Marianne Gray. Directed by Morten Tyldum. Screenplay, Ulf Ryberg, Lars Gudmestad, based on Jo Nesbo's novel.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), John Andreas Andersen; editor, Vidar Flataukan; music, Trond Bjerknes, Jeppe Kaas; production designer, Nina Bjerch-Andresen; costume designer, Karen Fabritius Gram; sound (Dolby SRD), Tormod Ringnes; special effects supervisor, Koo Hummer Hojmark. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 3, 2011. Running time: 100 MIN.

With: With: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnove Macody Lund, Julie Olgaard, Eivind Sander, Daniel Bratterud. (Norwegian, English, Russian dialogue)

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