Say what you will about genre-hopping Kazakh export Timur Bekmambetov: His career keeps you guessing, even when his films don’t. Rarely has a director’s filmography threaded two films as improbably consecutive as 2016’s misguided “Ben-Hur” remake and now “Profile,” a fast, lurid online-terror thriller that you’d describe as a curio if its helmer weren’t hell-bent on making the all-in-one-computer-screen movie a veritable subgenre.
Unlike the Bekmambetov-produced tension exercises “Unfriended” and “Search,” however, “Profile” aims for ripped-from-the-headlines social import, as it follows an intrepid but increasingly ill-advised London journalist in her quest to bait and expose an ISIS recruiter through Skype and social media. Loosely drawn from the experiences of French reporter Anna Erelle, this is an undeniably engrossing but almost entirely specious affair: Any factual grounding gives way beneath the film as it devolves into shrill heart-versus-head melodrama.
After the rather raggedly synthetic-looking “Ben-Hur” failed to fill the big screen with spectacle even remotely equivalent to its 1959 predecessor, perhaps Bekmambetov was wise to set his sights smaller: “Profile,” which has no credited director of photography, certainly boasts more convincing CGI, if that term can be applied to the film’s shuffling set of digital interfaces and applications, from FaceTime to YouTube to iTunes — the latter providing a sporadic score of ambient soundtrack cues with increasingly amusing implausibility.
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All the action, seemingly spanning a period of several weeks, thus plays out on the laptop of 30-something Amy Whittaker (Irish actress Valene Kane, giving it her all), a struggling, perma-stressed freelance journo pitching a potentially career-making story to hard-nosed TV news editor Vick (Christine Adams). With reports piling up of disaffected young European women being recruited into ISIS via assorted online platforms, Amy resolves to create a new online identity as a naive Muslim convert, dangling herself on Facebook as jihadist bait, uncovering the terrorist organization’s recruitment and enslavement tactics in the process.
It’s a suitably hooky prospect, and before long Amy is hitting up the internet for video tutorials on hijab-wrapping and age-concealing makeup techniques — though that seems to be the full extent of her research. If the technical environment of “Profile” is authentically rendered, with its relentless, eye-tiring skipping between programs and pop-up video calls, its grasp on journalistic practice is markedly less convincing, as Amy and Vick hurtle into this dangerous project with minimal, monosyllabic preparation and discussion. The familiar sound effects of BBC News are faintly heard in the background of one of Vick’s curt messages, but you could just as easily believe that Amy has secured this scoop for Babe.net.
Perhaps there’s a degree of cynical news-world satire in the antsy screenplay by Bekmambetov, Brittany Poulton and Olga Kharina, but Amy’s own scattershot lack of caution still strains credibility when, seemingly after mere minutes of posing as soft-spoken 19-year-old “Mellody” as Facebook, she catches the attention of Bilel (the promising Shazad Latif), a handsome, British, plainly psychotic ISIS hotshot whose own social media brand is a winning mix of cat GIFs and decapitation videos. Soon, assisted by Muslim IT assistant Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), she’s recording her frequent video chats with the Kalashnikov-brandishing monster, which swiftly take a turn for the seductive — all while she’s fending off impatient inquiries from her understandably bewildered boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins) and morbidly intrigued BFF Kathy (Emma Cater).
So far so nervily compelling, but once Amy begins secretly cutting Lou out of her growingly intimate exchanges with Bilel, seemingly falling for his calculated patter of sweet talk and sob stories, “Profile” takes a turn into irretrievably loopy territory that no amount of “based on a true story” claims can dignify. Taken on those renegotiated terms, “Profile” remains effective as a nerve-jangling genre teacup ride, directed by Bekmambetov with gaudy whipcrack restlessness.
The tab containing any meaningful insights into the nature of modern-day terrorism and the ethical lines of media coverage, however, is rarely clicked on. “It’s the fear that is killing us… THE FEAR!” Amy types at one point to her increasingly wary editor, who by this point is probably contemplating a kill fee in more ways than one. Bekmambetov’s cumulatively hysterical film begins as a study of terror before lurching into something closer to horror: Suddenly a mash-up of the online universes of “Profile” and “Unfriended,” in which neither one can be taken more seriously than the other, starts to make a lot of sense.