The stimulating hook of Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters is that it takes the cumulative damage usually spread across the entire canvas of any average action-thriller — say, for example, the aggregate blowing-up of Manhattan done in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers — and changes its trajectory so that the target of destruction isn’t a gigantic city or a far-off planet, but a single, solitary man. His name is Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), and, without question, his actions merit the destruction that comes his way throughout the course of this brisk Norwegian thriller. But we come along willingly — and trepidatiously — because we sympathize with the reasons behind Roger’s behavior, and because Hennie’s performance is a skewed, snakelike delight. And because, well, it’s simply hard to look away from a lot of the things Tyldum throws at us.
By day, Roger’s a headhunter, but his off-the-books profession — in which he’s aided by a mostly competent security worker (Eivind Sander) — occupies most of his time. Detailed in a needlessly flashy opening-credits sequence — and, soon after, and more effectively, in a full-blown, real-time heist depiction — Roger’s side-job as an art thief is, to him, his way of keeping his artist wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), financially satisfied. Short, shaggy-haired, and with a face constantly wrinkled by the anxieties of his double-life, Roger believes that the tower of illicit earnings reaped from his art-heist expertise is the only way to keep Diana — an archetypally intimidating tall-blonde type — from leaving him for someone else.
Someone, perhaps, like Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a bearded, muscular, well-groomed former-mercenary who’s friendly with Diana in addition to being a prime candidate for Roger’s forthcoming recruiting task. On top of all that, Roger learns from Diana that Clas is rumored to be the owner of an original Rubens that could easily be worth over $100 million. For Roger, who’s actually in a mountain of debt — his hard-floored mansion would be grindingly expensive to maintain even for a legitimate multi-millionaire — the prospect of banking on that Rubens has the aura of a score that could set him up for the long-term.
As you might imagine, however, swiping a possession that valuable from a guy like Clas — who’s got the physique of a bull, and years of battle-tested aggression to go with it — isn’t so easy, especially for someone like Roger, whose prior jobs were essentially risk-free. This one, not so much.
This setup makes way for Tyldum’s screenwriters — Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, working from a Jo Nesbø novel — to make Roger’s journey to redemption even more cruel and tumultuous than the one tasked to Tomer Sisley in Frédéric Jardin’s excitingly-shot Sleepless Night. Everything from weeks-old piles of feces to scar-filled bald-headedness awaits Roger, and he reacts to each confounding interference with remarkable, chin-up determination. Even if he weren’t a deep-down nice-guy, you’d still have to bow in admiration of his what’s-up-next resolution.
All of those horrifically entertaining set-pieces aside, the film’s surprising achievement — and the one that makes it a real, commendable genre creation — is the humanity of Roger’s character. The screenwriters turn his consuming Napoleon complex into something sincere and relatable, encapsulated in a lovely exchange between him and his wife that is perhaps the film’s emotional highlight. Amidst the free-falling trucks and blood-hungry hounds, the film finds time to pause and evoke the character’s sentiment, and that’s important.
For that reason, the impossibly tidy conclusion becomes desirable, even if it does remain the slightest bit unsatisfying. (Concluding so much relentless mayhem with such neatness evokes a silliness that’s at odds with the overall tone.) It’s nice — and rare — for a brass-knuckles tension-builder to have the know-how to evoke human beings while also evoking their blood and guts and so on.
For spoiler-related discussion of Headhunters, visit the Forums. All other comments can be left below.