Hypnotic opens in theaters on May 12, 2023
Hypnotic neither feels like a film made by its otherwise capable director – Robert Rodriguez, the visual stylist behind Sin City – nor one deserving of a star of Ben Affleck’s caliber. Held together by its threadbare concept about superpowered hypnotists, it’s a science-fiction thriller short on both sci-fi and thrills. Its countless twists and turns never feel serious enough to matter, thanks to its lackluster script, nor are they gonzo enough to be fun, owing to a lukewarm aesthetic approach. It may not grip you with its constantly shifting point of view, but it might make you wonder if there was real hypnosis involved in the decision to release it at all considering that it’s the most mid-2000s “direct to video”-looking movie to hit theaters this year.
As if in tribute to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece about implanted memories, Hypnotic begins by setting the bar far too high with a closeup of Ben Affleck’s iris. Affleck plays grieving Austin police detective Danny Rourke, a cop in therapy after the unsolved disappearance of his daughter a few years prior (and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage). When he’s yanked away to respond to a bank robbery in progress, things start adding up strangely, if at all: the plan’s apparent mastermind, the mysterious and motivated Dellrayne (William Fichtner), begins convincing civilians to partake in his crime using just a few words of suggestion; think Killgrave from Jessica Jones, but with without the flashy suits and a more street magician flair. It’s a concept befitting network TV, but Fichtner makes it chilling with his unbroken gaze.
Stranger still is the fact that Dellrayne’s target is linked to Rourke and contains a cryptic clue. What follows is a saga involving implanted thoughts, shady government organizations, and a few hints of mind-bending physics, all drawn from much better sci-fi movies.
The breadcrumbs of the robbery lead Affleck to fortune teller Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), whose primary function is to explain – with a straight face – that a covert organization called Division has a hand in training Dellrayne, and others like him, with the power to bend people to their will with the help of vivid hallucinations. Braga and Affleck approach their respective roles seriously enough to inject a temporary air of gravitas, but their dialogue is so mired in mindless, repetitive exposition that it leaves little room for anything they’re discussing to actually play out on-screen.
Inception-esque bending streets and shuffling architecture ensue, but only for a handful of shots (enough to pad out the trailer). Meanwhile, other concepts like self-mind-wipes and subsequent breadcrumb chases, à la Affleck’s own Paycheck, show up momentarily as well before being either discarded or buried under piling debris dislodged by non-stop rug-pulls that change Hypnotic’s apparent premise. This happens every few scenes for the entire first hour of its 93 total minutes.
Adding these many twists upon twists can, in theory, be shocking and disorienting; after all, this movie is about illusions. However, even this distinctly cinematic conceit is rendered null by how infrequently it takes advantage of the near carte blanche at its disposal. Rodriguez and co-writer Max Borenstein (of Godzilla vs. Kong fame) seldom succeed at setting the story up with ideas that are either emotionally convincing – enough to make their subversion leave a lasting impact – or eerie enough that one might question their nature. For the most part, you could find these exact frames in a run-of-the mill procedural drama on CBS.
In addition, Rodriguez’s usual penchant for gonzo violence is replaced by the most rote conventions of action filmmaking, the kind he became famous for turning on their heads and enhancing, with quick cuts and bloodlessness that render each chase and shootout a mostly passive experience, lacking in visceral “oomph.”
Affleck may bring a requisite amount of brooding to his role, but Rourke ends up a fundamentally broken concept for a protagonist, as a man whose every action and impulse is dictated by the flimsiest incarnation of a “where’s my daughter?!?” motive. If he’s convinced she is alive, it doesn’t make his convictions any stronger, or his temper any hotter. If he doubts this claim, he doubts it only barely; Hypnotic wants desperately to brush aside any hint of an emotional journey so its plot can unfold.
Affleck and Braga aren’t so much “too good” for the material as they are too fine-tuned for something that requires a much looser, more soap operatic approach. If there’s one actor who fits his role perfectly however, it’s J.D. Pardo as Nicks, Rourke’s partner at the Austin P.D. and the only performer who seems to know what kind of movie he’s in. Rodriguez’s haphazardly applied yellow wash gives Hypnotic a cheap and sickly feel, the kind typical of a low-budget crime thriller that depends more on momentum than emotional investment. Pardo, an interloper on various CSI shows and an addition to the Fast family in F9, is a cozy fit for exactly the kind of functional dialogue meant to advance the plot while emanating from the broadest possible conception of character (“Mind control? Bank accounts? Sounds more like my ex-wife,” he notes). But alas, his role is short-lived.