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A Thriller That Preys on the 'Mind'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

THERE CAN BE something deeply satisfying -- on an intellectual level, if not an aesthetic one -- about a locked-room mystery. Sure, it's an old chestnut, but that same tried-and-true formula worked for Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie. Why shouldn't it work for the Renny Harlin-directed LL Cool J vehicle, "Mindhunters," which sets a group of FBI criminal profiling trainees, one of whom may or may not be a murderer, on a deserted island? In point of fact, it does (even though I hesitate to use the word "intellectual" in the same paragraph as the names "Renny Harlin" and "LL Cool J").

Correction: Make that "James Todd Smith aka LL Cool J," which is how the rapper-turned-actor prefers his name to appear in the credits. See, that's a sign of class right there.

The premise could not be simpler. Seven students from the FBI's psychological profiling program, along with one outside observer (Smith), have been left on a remote island by their admittedly somewhat sadistic teacher (Val Kilmer) for a weekend of role-playing. Wandering the streets of the desolate facility, which the Navy has considerately set up with creepy-looking mannequins for exercises in urban warfare, the team must look for an ersatz "murder" scene, then figure out who done it. The problem is, as soon as they find the fake crime, one of their own stumbles into a very real, and very deadly, booby trap. Bye-bye, Christian Slater, whose character breaks up into several very grotesque pieces of frozen meat when a canister of liquid nitrogen shoots its contents at him.

It isn't long before someone's shouting, "No one leaves this room!"

And it's only a little while longer before someone else is shouting, "This is what the killer wants!" as the remaining members of the group also begin to get picked off, "Ten Little Indians"-style, leading to the requisite finger-pointing, paranoia and bickering.

Corny? Oh, yeah. But it's also reasonably good fun, especially as the increasingly creative means of dispatch are tailor-made, a la "Seven," to each particular victim. (One, for instance, who has been trying unsuccessfully to quit smoking, is eaten alive by an acid-tainted cigarette.)

Red herrings abound among the company, with enough disgruntlement, repressed childhood trauma and frustrated sexual desire to make everyone a suspect. Could it be the malcontent (Clifton Collins Jr.) who is flunking out of the profiler program? Or maybe it's the professor (Kilmer), pulling the strings from afar. After all, he did tell his charges that the killer was known as "the puppeteer," and he has been known to yank a chain or two in the past. Perhaps it's that strong, silent type (Smith) over there. Who did he say he was with again? There's plenty of delicious misdirection to keep a compliant audience guessing, which despite some predictability, is entirely the point.

Coming out, as "Mindhunters" does, with a bit of a bad odor (rising from the assumption that the film, which was shot in 2002, may have been sitting in the can a little too long), the film is actually a lot less stale than its setup. The biggest surprise about this movie may not necessarily even be the revelation of the murderer's identity -- which actually threw me -- but the fact that the oldest game in the book still works.

MINDHUNTERS (R, 105 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, brief nudity, sexuality and grisly murders. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company