If “Hangman” were just a tad less formulaic, and settled for a slightly smaller body count, it might pass muster as the pilot movie for a basic cable police procedural. Mind you, that’s not to say it actually would be picked up to series, even with the marquee names of Al Pacino and Karl Urban attached. But it almost certainly would be marginally more appealing as a modestly diverting time-killer designed to fill the gaps between reruns.
Working from a by-the-numbers screenplay credited to Michael Caissie and Charles Huttinger, who obviously watched and studied “Seven” and dozens of other serial-killer melodramas before cranking up their scriptwriting software, director Johnny Martin (“Vengeance: A Love Story”) follows three major characters through a multiple-murder investigation with all the suspense-generating gusto of a store clerk checking off items on an inventory list.
Ruiney (Urban), a homicide detective barely recovered from the unsolved murder of his wife, treats his latest investigation as a personal matter when he finds two badge numbers — his own and that of Archer (Pacino), a retired associate — carved into a desk at the scene of what turns out to be merely the first of several interrelated crimes. The two detectives rejoin forces to piece together clues tauntingly placed behind at subsequent slayings by a serial killer somehow inspired by the guess-the-letter game of Hangman, all the while accompanied — whether they want to be or not — by Christi Davies (Brittany Snow), an investigative reporter bent on writing the ultimate ride-along story.
Predictably, the improbable partnership doesn’t begin promisingly. “Get that press pass out of my face,” Archer growls at the determined journalist. “Sir,” Davies indignantly replies, “I’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.” (No, seriously: That’s just what she says.) But she winds up being grudgingly accepted by the two detectives anyway. And, by golly, it’s not difficult to accept that she earns respect because, like Urban, Snow comports herself with admiral professionalism while bringing at least a second dimension to a one-dimensional character.
(And speaking of actors who perform far beyond the call of duty: Sarah Shahi deserves kudos for her authoritative performance as the movie’s only halfway original character, a demanding police captain who just happens to be wheelchair-bound.)
“Hangman” is set in a mid-sized Southern city identified as Monroe (the movie was filmed on location in Atlanta), which presumably is the reason why Pacino reprises the same hambone drawl he sported in another recent VOD-ready thriller, the New Orleans-set “Misconduct.” To his credit, Pacino is appreciably more restrained here, even with the show-offy accent, and he summons enough world-weary gravitas to give the movie a great deal more than it ever gives him.
Still, as you watch him going through his paces and picking up an easy paycheck, one cannot help pondering a question that is a good deal more provocative than anything “Hangman” inspires: If there had been VOD features back in the 1970s, thereby increasing the demand for aging familiar faces, would stars like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum now have a lot more credits on their IMDb pages?