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Review: 'Headhunters' a thrilling, over-the-top criminal ride

This adaptation from the Jo Nesbo novel is propelled by charismatic stars Aksel Hennie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who engage in a cat-and-mouse struggle over a work of art.

April 27, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Headhunters."
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in "Headhunters." (Magnet Releasing )

The plural in"Headhunters"is not accidental.

Though it starts with one man and his conventional-seeming job as a corporate headhunter, before this twisty Norwegian thriller is over two individuals are involved in nonstop pursuit of each other for the highest possible stakes. Like life and death.

Taken from the fiendishly plotted novel by Jo Nesbo, one of Scandinavia's top mystery writers, "Headhunters" is a dark adult entertainment, a wild and bloody adrenaline rush of a movie that deals in gleeful grotesqueness and over-the-top implausibilities. The film version of the Jane Austen-inspired "Death Comes to Pemberley" this is not.

"Headhunters" is directed by Morten Tyldum, and given how slick and stylish the proceedings are, it is not a shock to learn that he trained at New York's School of Visual Arts and is "a highly sought-after commercial director" in his native Norway.

Working with cinematographer John Andreas Andersen and editor Vidar Flataukan, the very professional Tyldum certainly knows how to move things along and ratchet up the tension, a talent that is indispensable when you can't afford to give the audience too much time to consider how improbable the proceedings actually are.

It also helps that accomplished actors, Norwegian star Aksel Hennie andDenmark'sNikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister on"Game of Thrones,"are at the core of "Headhunters." Once he cast these two, the director confidently felt "we now have the foundation to create a film with fistfuls of nerve."

Hennie plays Roger Brown, a top corporate headhunter whose voice-over narration is the story's spine. When we are introduced to Brown, however, he is engaged not in his business career but rather in a quite profitable sideline: stealing high-quality art.

As we watch Brown operate with maximum efficiency, he explains his burglary rules, advising us, for instance, never to spend more than 10 minutes on a job. If you do this long enough, Brown says, one of two things will happen: You'll steal something so valuable you can retire or you'll get caught.

Brown also lets us know that at 5-foot-6 he's a textbook over-compensator: He married Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), a classic Nordic blond who towers over him, and to keep her happy he needs more money than he can easily make. Giving Diana children would also make her happy, but this is something Brown is unwilling to do.

Cocky, impudent, even a bit arrogant and cold, Brown is not an easy man to like. A self-described risk taker who believes "it's all a game" and "if you don't gamble, you don't win," he is living closer to the edge than he ever has before and is desperate for a big score.

At an opening for his wife's art gallery, Brown meets Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau), a recent arrival from the Netherlands. A cockier, not to mention taller alpha male than Brown, a veteran of an elite Dutch combat unit who just retired from a company that specializes in GPS tracking, Greve is an altogether formidable individual, but Brown sees him as a blessing in disguise.

For one thing, he can recommend Greve for a major CEO job he is trying to fill. For another, Greve turns out to own an invaluable Peter Paul Rubens painting that no one has seen since World War II. This is the big time, Brown tells his partner in crime Ove Kikerud (Eivind Sander), who works for a home security company and dabbles in Russian prostitutes. This is the score we can retire on.

Only, wouldn't you know it, it's not quite that simple. Once Brown finds himself in Greve's orbit, his ordinarily in-control life goes completely kablooey, and he finds himself in outrageous situations, fighting for survival as one diabolical cat and mouse situation succeeds another. Brown is so overmatched that we actually start to root for him to succeed, and that may be "Headhunters" biggest surprise of all.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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