Morten Tyldum's "Headhunters" was an almost unprecedented success in its native Norway, but stateside, it will fit in quite well with typical pieces of summer escapism. The film, based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, is slick, fast-paced, sexy, surprising, very violent and thoroughly entertaining.
It also is thoroughly ridiculous and rather exhausting, and in the end, it feels emptier than it should, considering all the commotion it stirs up in its 100 minutes.
Most action films gradually wear viewers down by piling on fights, explosions, and other routine disasters. "Headhunters" (in Norwegian with English subtitles) runs on an arsenal of sheer, unending, unpredictable absurdity. It's a flawed and sometimes frustrating piece of entertainment, but in an uncommonly intelligent way.
Roger Brown (Askel Hennie) is living behind a façade. He lives in an extremely expensive house that he doesn't like – he only purchased it to please his beautiful wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund). By day, he works as a corporate recruiter, and he plays the part, dressing like a natural-born big shot and coolly musing to others about the importance of one's "reputation." Inside, he's perpetually insecure because, at 5 feet, 6 inches, he quite literally feels that he doesn't measure up among bigger and bolder honchos.
"You don't need a Ph.D. to realize that I overcompensate for my height," he says in an opening voice-over, while gazing at his wife in a shower that's bigger than his office.
Roger's greatest lie, however, is about the true source of his wealth. With the help of his surly, older friend Ove (Eivind Sander), Roger moonlights as an art thief, using information he obtains from corporate interviews to find and steal world-class paintings.
In the film's opening scene, Roger lays down his five simple rules for successful art thievery, and we immediately take him for a smooth, exacting criminal. When Roger eventually meets Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) – a towering, genuinely cool executive who has one of the world's most expensive paintings (and, perhaps, also has Diana's romantic interest) – we expect a smooth, exacting crime narrative to follow.
Once Roger tries to steal Clas' cherished painting, though, nothing will go as planned – for Roger, and for the audience. "Headhunters" begins with all the elements for a sleek, routine tale of thievery and oneupmanship. But, like Roger's suave persona, the film's first act is itself a façade that eventually gives way to an outsized mess of confusions and complications.
"Headhunters" is both fun and frustrating for how far it deviates from its seemingly familiar plot, and for how much further it keeps deviating from there. You might expect that Roger's heist won't work out, but you won't be able to expect – or, sometimes, even process – everything that follows. What begins as an "Ocean's Eleven"-style caper descends into a Coen Brothers-esque world of insanity and, by the third act, starts to feel like a bloody, business-minded episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
After "Headhunters" breaks from its initial setup, the film doesn't stick with any one mood for too long. It traffics through scenes of abrupt violence, cat-and-mouse tension, paranoid revelations, gross-out surprises, and sentimental declarations of love. These individual moments – each perfectly complimented by Trond Bjerknes and Jeppe Kaas' ever-changing score – are admirable for how well they work individually. ?"Headhunters" has no problem creating fresh chaos for Roger to endure; in fact, it's hampered by stuffing in too much chaos.
The weight of the plot twists and coincidences alone will be too much for many to buy into; trying to follow this merciless narrative as a whole is downright fatiguing.
Hennie is the one constant in the film. In the beginning, he's excellent at showing Roger's cracks, with his mask of forced smiles constantly twitching and deflating with uncertainty. When the turmoil begins, Hennie makes Roger a surprisingly sympathetic guide.
It's a shame, then, that the film concludes with a final, sweeping twist that almost makes us feel foolish for caring. But such an ending is hardly surprising for a film that is basically a tribute to its own cleverness.
3 stars (out of 4)