Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/11/12 15:10:48

"Hunt this twisty, clever thriller down."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2012: What makes for a good thriller? There are many recipes, but it's the results that matter; the audience should spend as much time as possible excited by what's about to happen, in addition to what's going on in the moment. "Headhunters" does a legitimately exceptional job of that, letting the audience enjoy the roller-coaster ride its unlikely protagonist is on without playing down to anybody.

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is an Oslo corporate headhunter who between his expensive house, lavish gifts to wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), and girlfriend Lotte (Julie Ølgaard) is living well beyond his means. He finances this lifestyle by moonlighting as an art thief, using intelligence he gleans at his day job and a partner who works for an alarm company - Ove (Eivind Sander) - to get things done quickly and quietly. At the opening of Diana's new gallery, he meets Clas Greve (Nikloj Coster-Waldau), a recent arrival from Denmark who is both perfect for a CEO job he's recruiting for and the inheritor of a piece lost since WWII - although things that look too good to be true often are.

Director Morten Tyldum and writers Lars Gudmestad & Ulf Ryberg (adapting a novel by Jo Nesbø) don't mess around with just how bad an idea stealing that painting is, or anything, really. Headhunters lays most of the information that the audience needs to know out early, and there's not a lot of it - just enough to kick off an entertaining chase. And once that's on, it's one thing after another with nary a moment for Roger or the audience to stop for breath, with the focus tightening to Roger as the movie goes on so that cut-aways don't slow things down. Even last-act revelations (which are actually pretty slick) don't require a pause to explain things.

The action scenes that the movie runs between are pretty great, too. Tyldum stages them with both clarity and intensity, and more important, inventiveness. A straightforward action scene will get kicked up a notch and then get downright strange. Someone, somewhere along the line, had a wickedly dark sense of humor, and Tyldum shows a great ability to get some very big laughs without sacrificing tension. There's a couple of especially great sequences that run the full gamut of tones, including a climactic bit that it's quite honestly surprising that I can't recall seeing before. The set pieces may not be incredibly elaborate, but they are great surprises both in terms of what they do and how they do it.

Roger delivers a little narration to set the scene, although Aksel Hennie's performance is good enough that we could have gone without if need be. There's a combination of cockiness and self-doubt to it that makes the character entirely believable, and while Roger's attitude and actions will often put him in anti-hero territory, but nevertheless earns the audience's sympathy. Niklaj Coster-Waldau's Clas is set up as his opposite in every way and makes for a great, dogged adversary, in part because he can show confusion without appearing weak. Even though the pair are not supposed to be evenly-matched at all, they are great complements for each other and both strong enough that Headhunters can become a great game of cat-and-mouse. Synnøve Macody, Eivind Sander, and Julie R. Ølgaard all fill supporting roles very well indeed, and I suspect that what misdirection several are called upon to perform is going to look even better on a second viewing.

I'm honestly looking forward to that second viewing, and likely more after that. Lots of thrillers can get by on mere surprise - and "Headhunters" does that better than most - but very few have a rogue's gallery that is this much fun even when getting knocked off, or scenes that strike such a perfect balance between nail-biting suspense and gut-busting laughter. This is a good one, not to be missed.

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