Anyone who immerses themselves into the world of cinematic schlock soon comes to realize how useless the entry-level critical question of “is it good or bad?” actually is. If you really want to have fun with the insanity that cinema has to offer, such simplistic notions must be abandoned. The best replacement for the “good/bad” question as a baseline would be “is it entertaining or not?” because there are many films that don’t work on “legitimate” critical terms but still offer plenty of entertainment in their own logic/taste-defying way.
And that brings us to Mindhunters. As many reviewers have noted, this terminally silly slice of high-concept hokum is basically Ten Little Indians with a serial killer fetish. It begins with oddball F.B.I. profiling expert Jake Harris (Val Kilmer) inviting a batch of students, each with their own phobias or psychological issues, to attend a private training exercise held on a government-owned island with a faux-“town square” training area. Among the students are the sarcastic J.D. (Christian Slater), the fragile but brainy Sara (Kathryn Morris), the hotheaded Lucas (Jonny Lee Miller) and the bitter, handicapped Vince (Clifton Collins). Added into the mix at the last minute is Gabe (LL Cool J), a Philly-based detective there to observe Jake’s eccentric methods.
After a night’s rest and some obligatory exposition, the training exercise begins as the students try to track down “The Puppeteer,” the faux-target of the game. Unfortunately, the Puppeteer has left behind a Rube Goldberg-esque trap that kills one of the students in a dramatic yet ludicrous manner. Thus begins a flurry of suspicions, plot twists and absurdly convoluted “creative kill” murder setpieces as the survivors while they try to outwit the unseen killer before he gets them all.
It’s pointless to mock Mindhunters because it is its own self-parody, playing like a Mad Magazine version of the sub–Se7en thrillers that were clogging the multplexes during the first half of the 2000’s. The characters are absurdly unconvincing as F.B.I. students, a flaw compounded by the way they act like dimwits at every thorny turn of the plot. The Puppeteer is one of the goofiest serial killer concepts ever and his obscure methods of murder will leave most viewers slackjawed. The acting is also mostly terrible: Morris floats through the film like a blank-eyed ghost, Slater’s doing his Heathers schtick for the umpteenth time and Collins and Miller seems to be competing for “biggest overactor” honors. Only L.L. Cool J and Val Kilmer (the one actor who seems to know how awful the film actually is) coming out unscathed.
However, none of these problems make Mindhunters unwatchable or less than entertaining. In fact, the film is wildly entertaining from start to finish because you never know what bit of insanity will be sprung on you next. It’s the best kind of bad — eccentric — and is full of bizarro touches, from the ridiculous Rube Goldberg machinations of the first trap (it takes a few minutes and several stages to deliver its killer payload while everyone just stands there waiting for it to happen) to Miller’s hilariously awful “Southern” accent.
It’s also happens to be very skillfully shot and stylized for something so ridiculously misguided at the conceptual level. The credit for this aspect of the film goes to Renny Harlin: he may have questionable taste in material but he knows how to pace a film and deliver a payoff. His muscular, aggressive style perfectly fits the straight-faced lunacy of the film and the fact that he doesn’t seem to be in on the joke of how silly it all is just makes the proceedings all the sweeter.
In short, Mindhunters steamrolls right over the “good or bad” standard of criticism and delivers a high-camp blast of goofball thriller fun. Who cares about aesthetic standards when being bad is this much fun?