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There’s a lot of empty space in “Hypnotic,” a doofy, though never boring sci-fi thriller about a Texas cop, played by Ben Affleck, who stumbles upon a conspiracy of mind-controlling crooks. Or he seems to stumble upon them. Reality buckles and warps around our troubled hero, whose daughter has already gone missing before the movie starts.
Now Detective Daniel Rourke (Affleck) alternates between chasing after and running away from an elusive mind-controlling “hypnotic,” played by William Fichtner. Fichtner’s baddy is the prime (and only) suspect in a weird bank heist that leaves Rourke dazed and clutching at a Polaroid of his daughter Minnie (Hala Finley). Some mysterious handwriting on the photo tells Rourke to “Find Lev Dell Rayne.”
Wide-angle photography also helps viewers to distinguish between “reality” as Rourke knows it and the “Inception”-style delirium that warps his (and our) perspective, often shot with spherical camera lenses. If you squint hard enough at “Hypnotic,” past the obvious twists and embarrassing dialogue, you might see flashes of a deeper story, though only if you’re a fan of multihyphenate filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.
Rodriguez (“Alita: Battle Angel,” “Four Rooms”) directed, scripted, and edited “Hypnotic” in Austin, Texas, after three production breaks and an insurance lawsuit. Austin was not Rodriguez or his production’s first choice of location (Los Angeles), nor was it their second (Toronto). Still, it’s hard to imagine how Rodriguez could have shot “Hypnotic” anywhere but Austin, especially because he’s filmed most of his projects in Austin during his 30 years as a filmmaker. Moreover, when “Hypnotic” is more about ambiance than story, it seems to reflect a crisis of imagination: what happened to the weird and vibrant Austin of Rodriguez’s memory? Did it ever really exist?
I don’t mean to over-sell the personal qualities that often skirt the periphery of Rourke’s quest for answers, but “Hypnotic” does try to lull viewers into a suggestive frame of mind, primarily by over-stating the facts of Rourke’s investigation. He teams up with Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), a “dime store psychic” (his words) who ferries Rourke around Austin’s shadier corners. Rodriguez’s fans might recognize a few key locations, like the Bone Shack barbecue spot from “Planet Terror,” where truckers and Texas Rangers refuel with breakfast tacos. Other Austin locations are only familiar because of the character actors lurking inside, like Jeff Fahey and Jackie Earle Haley. There’s also an Alex Jones-type paranoiac (Dayo Okeniyi) hiding in a lavishly decorated bunker. He can see fine, but still wears an eyepatch that he shifts from eye to eye to avoid detection by security cameras, because of their facial recognition technology, right?
The prefab weird-ness of this secret Austin, the city that Rourke never thought to investigate, inevitably proves to be as substantial as the movie’s canned and by-now-stale remixing of the genre tics and tropes that Christopher Nolan previously claimed in signature movies like “Memento,” “Inception,” and “Tenet.” “Hypnotic” isn’t as polished nor as thoughtful as Nolan’s trendsetters. It’s also often distractingly stiff in its over-inflated visual compositions and robotic dialogue. A game cast, led by the thanklessly charming Affleck, does not add much value to this bald caper.
Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching Rodriguez clumsily apply his signature fetishes to “Hypnotic,” a movie where Alice Braga offers Ben Affleck a glass of clear moonshine whiskey and an unnamed Texas Ranger, with a white cowboy hat and matching suit, takes his coffee “black ‘n sludgy.” If you’re a Rodriguez fan, you might be charmed by these clumsy and perhaps over-confident personal touches. His humor is certainly corny enough to be an acquired taste, like when River, Okeniyi’s paranoid hacker, offers Rourke some “homemade Mountain Dew” after showing him his disturbed mind corkboard, which connects everything to hypnotics, from Brexit to the Pope. “My own brew, all organic,” River boasts about his DIY Dew. Rourke still declines.
Fans will recognize and appreciate the well-worn pleasures of this lightly seasoned genre exercise. Others will understandably laugh at Ben Affleck when he says things like, “Hypnotics did all this?!” Rodriguez also tends to linger on shots and story beats a little too long, presumably to ensure distracted viewers cannot miss overt cues. It’s hard, though not impossible, to be seduced given these trying conditions.
Look, the dramatic stakes could be higher, but that’s part of the fun with “Hypnotic,” a bombastic, pseudo-mindbending chase movie where A-listers mosey into an underwhelming twist. Your enjoyment depends on how badly you want to watch Rodriguez and the gang struggle to pull a well-beaten rug out from under you. “Hypnotic” may not be clever or energetic enough to keep your mind from wandering, but it is charming in its own stumbling way.
In theaters now.
Ben Affleck as Daniel Rourke
Alice Braga as Diana Cruz
William Fichtner as Liv Del Rayne
Hala Finley as Dominique Rourke
Kelly Frye as Vivian
Melanie Hawkins as Emily
Derek Russo as Tiny