Scandinavian procedurals and thrillers have become the toast of the town over the past couple of years, in no small part thanks to the sales phenomenon of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy of novels, but also helped by the celebrated television shows The Killing or Wallander. Headhunters is yet another facet of that interest, adapting one of the novels by best-selling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, with its remake rights allegedly bought by an American studio even before this homegrown film adaptation had finished shooting.
Of course, this is the Millennium modus operandi rebooted (the production company is the same, Yellow Bird) with one difference: while David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remade an original produced for television, Headhunters was a theatrical feature from the start. At least technically, since Norwegian director Morten Tyldum is himself a TV veteran and, for all the widescreen lensing and action sequences, this remains mostly a blown-up TV movie. The giveaway is in Trond Bjorknæs and Jeppe Kaas' intrusive, numbing score, signposting every single plot development from a distance and making sure the viewer feels what he is supposed to feel at every step of the way.
This is doubly disappointing. First, because for all the IKEA-functional handling (crisply lensed by John Andreas Andersen), there are some very strong performances from the cast, especially from the lead, the wiry and smart Aksel Hennie, playing Roger Brown - a dislikeable, take-no-prisoners HR consultant with a sideline as an art burglar that helps finance the jet-setting lifestyle he has taken on for the sake of his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund). Second, because the mere thought of having as a hero such a thoroughly unpleasant character, and the need to make the viewer root for his redemption rather than for his comeuppance despite being such a self-evident jerk, is strong enough to survive whatever the plot throws at him. And it throws a lot, intertwining Brown's personal and private lives as he "headhunts" a newly retired security firm executive (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) only to find himself the apparent target of a well-organised conspiracy where nothing is what it seems.
That constant doubling-back on itself, adroitly if anonymously managed by Mr. Tyldum, only keeps the viewer interested because Mr. Hennie gives a craftily-judged turn as Brown, always living by his wits and perfectly aware of the level he needs to be playing at to get himself out of this, but also making very clear that the ruthlessness of his presentation is a well-appointed facade to hide his shortcomings (operative word, here, being "short"). A more stylish, less anonymous take on the material would do wonders for Headhunters' pulse, but it's nowhere to be found here, so we can only hope that whatever comes out of the eventual American remake will do the necessary justice to Mr. Nesbø's novel, as indeed Mr. Fincher's film did to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Eivind Sander
Director: Morten Tyldum
Screenplay: Ulf Ryberg, Lars Gudmestad, from the novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters
Cinematography: John Andreas Andersen (colour, widescreen)
Music: Trond Bjerknæs, Jeppe Kaas
Designer: Nine Bjerch-Andresen
Costumes: Karen Fabritius Gram
Editor: Vidar Flataukan
Producers: Asle Vatn, Marianne Gray (Yellow Bird Norge and Friland Film in co-production with Nordisk Film and Degeto Film)
Sweden/Norway/Denmark/Germany, 2011, 100 minutes
Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 8th 2013