The heroes of great crime stories generally come equipped with extreme inferiority complexes. If there's a list ranking those wily characters, then Roger Brown, the daring art thief anti-hero of Morten Tyldum's widely enjoyable Norwegian action-comedy "Headhunters," belongs somewhere in the pantheon.
Adapted from Jo Nesbo's novel by screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg from the novel, "Headhunters" announces itself as a routine heist movie by letting Roger's perspective dominate. Not knowing that his self-made world will soon collapse around him, Roger (Aksel Hennie) boasts an introductory voiceover about his art thieving routine and his ability to prevent his supposedly loving wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) from learning about it. Noting his 1.68 meter height, which causes Diana and everyone else to loom over him, Roger explains that he makes up for the physical shortcoming by achieving power in other ways, successfully hiding his criminal life by working a day job as the influential headhunter at a major Norwegian firm.
The slick early scenes establish Roger as a bite-size Danny Ocean. Learning about a colleague's priceless artwork, he hires a goon to help him with an ambitious plan to make millions lifting it. However, while "Headhunters" begins with Roger laying out the rules of good art robbery, the story suddenly breaks them by veering off in another direction. After a sudden death ruins Roger's plan, he begins to suspect his wife (whose shapely physique suggests Sharon Stone circa "Basic Instinct") and a coworker (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) not only know about Roger's thieving shenanigans but have been plotting against him. Afraid for his life and trusting no one, Roger hits the road, at which point "Headhunters" suddenly transforms into an occasionally ingenious riff on "The Fugitive" as a bizarrely comic misadventure.
Roger doesn't know why he's on the lam, but he barely has time to figure it out. In a blitz from one close call with a man trying to kill him to another involving the police, "Headhunters" maintains an inspired lunacy. After gags involving microtransmitters, a fecal matter disguise, and the unexpectedly gruesome death of a guard dog, the solution to Roger's conundrum is virtually irrelevant. The thrilling pace compensates for fairly hollow characterizations of everyone but Roger, but no matter how clever the story gets, it still retains a general sense of familiarity. Tyldum keeps the events engaging but never transcendent.
Nevertheless, directing his third feature after "Buddy" and "Fallen Angels," the director displays a strong capacity for lively action sequences. He's particularly skilled at playing with visual details, most notably crafting a tense moment in which Roger must play dead and nearly loses his composure with each passing second.
Petite but never pathetic, Hennie is an ideal actor for the lead role, coming across as a Gollum-like hustler whose confident exterior gradually comes undone until he transforms into a figure of slapstick. Roger's routine ability to take advantage of his environment by thinking quick on his feet, inevitably winding up in another jam, calls to mind Buster Keaton in a role he might have enjoyed playing himself.
Still, the genre "Headhunters" inhabits doesn't take easily to humor. Tyldum need to stick close to formulaic guidelines constantly holds down its potential, leading to a half-assed conclusion that's out of proportion with the energetic series of events leading up to it. After an exhilarating ride, however, it's no surprise that "Headhunters" eventually comes crashing back to Earth.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received in the Piazza Grande section of the Locarno Film Festival, "Headhunters" may not get quite as much attention when it screens at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. However, the film has had North American distribution since Magnolia picked it up at the Berlinale market earlier this year, and will likely perform well on VOD.