Tuesday, 10 April 2012

FILM REVIEW: Headhunters

Most reviews of Headhunters come with the observation of how in vogue Scandinavian crime thrillers are right now, from Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (long a bestseller before it spawned two hugely successful films) to TV shows such as The Killing and Borgen, both shown on BBC4 recently. Their intricately plotted tales of murder, sex and deception peppered with complex patchwork characters and the sparse yet beautiful snowy landscapes has captured the world's imagination and we just can't get enough of it. Luckily for us, the lid of the treasure chest has just been open, with depths of riches still left to explore. One of these is Norwegian crime sensation Jo Nesbø, whose books I have long seen making up the majority of Waterstones offers, and who is the latest to get his work onto the screen. 

First up is his 2008 novel Headhunters (which at least stands out from the crowd by not having a dead teenage girl at the heart of it!). Aksel Hennie (Norway's answer to Steve Buscemi) plays Roger Brown - the most English man in Oslo - a 1.68m tall headhunting businessman with a catalogue apartment, an out of his league blonde bombshell wife, and a money-paying side job as an art thief. Waiting for that "big job" to score enough money to retire from his criminal endeavours, he is introduced to the ultra stylish, composed Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones and playing bad ass again) who may just have that priceless painting Roger has been waiting on. Whilst priming Clas for a job as the new CEO at a partner company, he gets the information he needs to steal the painting - but then finds out Clas Greve is not who he says he is, and beneath the pristine exterior is a ruthless ex-army assassin. And Roger's just about to get on his bad side.

In actuality, what starts out as a robbery gone wrong becomes very little to do with the painting at all (it's abandoned halfway through), and more a character study cat and mouse chase. Headhunters is the definition of pulp: transposing that page-turning quality onto the big screen with exhilarating action and ingenious plot devices. The story is very silly-clever, with nothing completely stemmed in reality (transmitters in hair gel which can help to track a person for one thing, and a LOT relying on coincidence and chance). But is none the less completely enjoyable - this is a film where you can quite happily sweep the massive plot holes aside as the action is so good and the set-pieces so wonderfully woven together. 

It does take its time to get its gears in motion, which means the characters are well drawn and you care about them, even though our protagonist is a cheat (and hypocritical with it, furious and dismayed when he finds out his wife is having an affair yet he has been involved with another woman for months) and a thief, smoothly appraising clients he's headhunting for other firms to suss out whether they own any valuable art he can steal, whilst simultaneously finding out the times they will be out of the house and whether there will be any obstacles in the way (a dog, a maid, children). Despite all this you root for him throughout the film, and believe me, he has a very bad day of things. What starts off as an art theft slowly becomes something bigger and more sinister, and Clas Greve becomes a man you do not want to mess with, nor his evil dog. 

The brilliant cat and mouse sequence which rips open the second and third acts constantly surprises, horrifies and in turn makes you giggle at the glorious lunacy that you're watching, but applaud them for actually going there as well. The cabin sequence is great, with Roger being forced to hide in outhouse excrement as Clas and his dog hunt him down in the most nauseating moment of cinema so far in 2012. This scene is then bettered by an excellent coming together of a police car and truck (of course on the edge of a cliff), where covered in blood Roger manages to stare dead eyed at Clas for several seconds to convince him that he's dead, before shaving off all of his hair (that pesky GPS hairgel) and escaping once again. He may, as he repeatedly states, be only 1.68m tall, but this guy is truly super human. Some great touches as well (apart from the film's epilogue of "here's how it all happened, were you watching closely?") most notably the obese twin police officers who are there to speak to Roger once he ends up in hospital - they were, unsurprisingly, really difficult to cast and the fact they went to such lengths to match a character description from the book is truly loyal. 

Headhunters' biggest strength though is its black humour, some of the sequences so insane you have to just smile, shake your head and go with it. When there's a character making a getaway covered in shit on a tractor with a dead dog impaled onto the front of it, then you know the tone! There's also the part that I just have to mention where Roger is able to shoot someone through his trousers. Coupled with the jaunty soundtrack, things never get too intense for our characters. The zippy pace means it's not as thickly plotted or as involving as Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or The Killing, but I find it refreshing in that regard - it's a proper good ride. 

The US rights to this have already been snapped up (by Mark Wahlberg, yet again) so get in there while you can. Nesbø's next book to film adaptation is Hollywood bound, with Martin Scorsese signed on to direct The Snowman, his favourite of his Harry Hole detective series. I'm going to keep my eye on that project as it has win all over it. With six other books (and counting) in the series, if The Snowman does well and the Headhunters remake is a success, Nesbø could be a big deal in Hollywood, something Steig Larsson will unfortunately never get to experience.

A darkly comic thriller with some fantastic performances, Headhunters is a treat you shouldn't let pass you by. Great Bank Holiday fun.

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