Renny Harlin's "Mindhunters" begins with a deceptive scariness. Two FBI agents and would-be criminal profilers, J.D. (Christian Slater) and Sara (Kathryn Morris), on the track of a serial child-killer, come upon a derelict Victorian hotel in rural Virginia and investigate, discovering a large dining-table set with a child's birthday party frozen in time like Miss Havisham's wedding. There's much detritus strewn everywhere, the place is in shambles, and the basement is full of unspeakable horrors, yet they nab their man — only to discover too late that there's another man.
This sequence has been carefully staged to build suspense and is truly frightening, but it turns out to be a training exercise — and "Mindhunters" turns out to be a thudding dud, crammed with clunky dialogue, bad acting and gruesome but unpersuasive gore. "Mindhunters" will pass muster with only the most undemanding horror fans.
Because the two agents have failed their test, so to speak, their surly, macho boss (Val Kilmer) sends them off along with six others, including a Philadelphia cop (LL Cool J) to a remote island off North Carolina for a training exercise designed to put them inside the mind of a serial killer. The seemingly abandoned island community is dominated by a looming, gloomy Streamline Moderne laboratory-dormitory building. Spreading out in front of it in a horseshoe configuration is a closed-down village with typical small-town Main Street venues. In the time-honored manner of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," the trainees start dropping off like flies in uniquely grisly fashion reflective of their respective fears and weaknesses and according to a time pattern to be decoded by the dwindling survivors.
Writers Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin do make it tough to guess the identity of the killer among the trainees, but there's scant reason to care, so heavy-handed and unconvincing is this movie, a bald, mechanical display of the exploitation of violence, bloodshed and torture and nothing more.
Slater is fine but Kilmer is overly broad in his brief appearance. LL Cool J's considerable presence is wasted, and of the rest of the cast only Morris is able to work up a characterization of any complexity or conviction.
MPAA rating: R for violence/strong graphic images, language and sexual content
Times guidelines: Extreme violence, totally unsuitable for children
A Dimension Films release. Director Renny Harlin. Producers Jeffrey Silver, Bobby Newmyer. Executive producers Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Renny Harlin. Co-executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Screenplay by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin, from a story by Kramer. Cinematographer Robert Gantz. Editors Paul Martin Smith, Neil Farrell. Music Tuomas Kantelinen. Visual effects supervisor Brian M. Jennings. Costumes Louise Frogley. Production designer Charles Wood. Supervising art director Jon Billington. Art director Marco Rooth. Set decorator Eliza Solesbury. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In general release.