Ten little FBI agents
Question: What would you get if you took Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians; trimmed the cast down to nine; removed all the plot, character development, suspense and mordant humor; and assigned it to a director with a penchant for sacrificing plot and character to noisy, over-the-top action? Answer: Mindhunters.
The premise of Mindhunters—a group of people on an inaccessible island being murdered one by one—is so boldly ripped off from Christie’s venerable novel and play that writers Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin must have been confident that most of their audience had neither read them nor seen any of the seven film and TV dramatizations (for the record, the first and best was René Clair’s And Then There Were None in 1945). For that matter, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kramer and Brodbin themselves had never read Christie; maybe they just heard the idea and thought it sounded really cool. If they have read Christie, they don’t seem to have learned much.
The isolated victims this time around are supposed to be FBI profilers in training (even though the actors playing them range in age from 27 to 35, Kramer and Brodbin apparently being unaware that the FBI enlists profilers from among its most experienced agents). They have been brought by their trainer, Harris (Val Kilmer), to an island off the Atlantic Coast borrowed from the Navy SEALs. The island has a mock town populated by mannequins, among whom, Harris tells them, a “crime” will be committed soon by an unseen person he calls “the puppeteer.”
Before the fake crime can occur, though, the real ones begin. One of the agents is murdered in plain view of the others, in a spectacularly grisly fashion—the victim is sprayed with liquid nitrogen and shatters like an ice sculpture.
That first murder sets a pattern that traps the rest of the movie. One of Kramer and Brodbin’s supposed improvements on Christie is their dispensing with the relatively genteel methods of her unseen killer: poison, lethal injection or a discreet hatchet to the head when no one is looking. (Plus, of course, each Ten Little Indians victim died in a method consistent with the corresponding verse of the eponymous nursery rhyme.) Instead, the victims in Mindhunters are dispatched in increasingly outlandish Rube Goldberg-style contraptions, at the precise instant predicted by the killer on stopped watches and clocks he or she leaves lying about.
That’s the trap the movie falls into: Kramer and Brodbin don’t bother to establish a reason for the serial killings—or, for that matter, even to clearly establish the characters before commencing bumping them off. So, the only possible source of suspense (if that’s what you want to call it) isn’t the killer’s motive, or even who the next victim is going to be, but rather how he or she is going to get it. Head sliced off and then carefully balanced on the shoulders while the others are asleep? Skewered by booby-trap bolts from a battery of hidden spear guns? Poisoned by acid-impregnated cigarettes? Blasted by a trick gun that fires backward, blowing the brains out of the shooter? You name it. But what you can’t name, 10 minutes after the killer is finally unmasked, is which victim went with which death. Bobby? Vince? Rafe? Nicole? Lucas? It doesn’t matter; they’re all as interchangeable as pretty faces on a soap opera (though not quite as pretty; these alleged FBI agents seem to shave and wash their hair approximately every third solar eclipse).
The cast of Mindhunters includes some actors who have proven that they deserve better material—Kilmer, Christian Slater and James Todd Smith (a.k.a. LL Cool J)—along with several others who, to put it bluntly, haven’t yet proven anything and don’t make much of an impression here.
The director, Renny Harlin, stages the action with his usual hard-driving, italicized boisterousness, at a breathless sprint and full volume. This is Harlin’s second movie in a row (after last year’s Exorcist: The Beginning) in which the material was unsuited to his strengths. His glory days of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger are beginning to look like a long time ago.