Hypnotic title image
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93 min.
Release Date
Hypnotic poster

(Note: Although this review does not reveal any specific major twists, it discusses some very mild spoilers and plot points. Consider yourself warned.)

Hypnotic is a movie about super-powered people who use their version of Jedi mind tricks to manipulate thoughts and perceptions of reality. One word from them, and they could convince you to take off your clothes or commit a crime, and you would have no memory of what you did. They can also control what you experience by, for example, making you believe that you’ve visited someplace you’ve never been. The high-concept movie comes from Robert Rodriguez, who serves as director, editor, producer, co-writer, and co-cinematographer. But Rodriguez aims his considerable talent at little more than a faux Christopher Nolan-esque mindbender, complete with slick visuals, restrained emotions, and an overabundance of expositional dialogue, albeit on a much smaller scale than the average Nolan project. Although the Austin-based filmmaker starts with an intriguing concept and a talented cast, the problems stem from the lifeless script. Alongside writer Max Borenstein (of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise), Rodriguez deploys twist after twist, and some of them are even surprising, but the material as written and presented doesn’t generate much interest. 

Looking remarkably stoic and uninvested, Ben Affleck stars as Det. Danny Rourke, a moody protagonist who follows the cliché archetype of a hero with a traumatic past. His seven-year-old daughter, Minnie (Hala Finley), was kidnapped from a public park on his watch, and the incident led to his marriage dissolving. According to expository news reports that leap into the movie from nowhere in particular, the kidnapper has no memory of what he did, and that detail has haunted Rourke. So when he and his partner Nicks (JD Pardo) follow up on an anonymous tip that a safety deposit box will be robbed, and Rourke checks the box and finds a Polaroid of Minnie with the words “Find Lev Dellrayne” written on the bottom, he begins asking questions. Dellrayne, Rourke learns, is the name of a mysterious thief (William Fichtner) who uses his supernatural talents to convince cops and bank tellers to do his bidding. Dellrayne gives orders, and like automatons, people obey. Pursuing the connection between Minnie and Dellrayne, Rourke meets Diana Cruz (Alice Braga, going through the motions), Dellrayne’s former associate, who serves as an exposition machine. 

Rodriguez and Borenstein’s script adheres to the Nolan model from Inception (2010), with chilly characters and elaborate world-building. Cruz explains that she and Dellrayne are “Hypnotics,” part of an off-the-rails government experiment, resulting in rogue agents who can create “hypnotic constructs” in someone’s mind. For much of the movie, Rourke and Cruz alternately chase or run from Dellrayne, playing all sorts of mind games with trippy visuals along the way. For instance, when Dellrayne uses his telepathic abilities, the edges of the frame blur and distort. Rodriguez shares lensing duties with cinematographer Pablo Berron, and their coolly composed style recalls futuristic noir-thrillers like Gattaca (1997), except with hints of a CGI extravaganza. And at one point, Rourke sees a train yard bend up and over him in the sky, recalling a similar, famous scene with a cityscape from Inception. But instead of blowing our minds with spectacle, Rodriguez merely evokes better movies and books with similar scenarios. Indeed, everything we see onscreen reminds us of Brian DePalma’s The Fury (1978), Stephen King’s Firestarter (1980), Paul McGuigan’s Push (2009), and John Woo’s Paycheck (2003), with a final hint of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). 

The been-there, done-that quality isn’t enough to derail Hypnotic. After all, Hollywood makes plenty of derivative movies every year, yet they succeed because they’re well-executed variations on established ideas. But Rodriguez’s filmmaking proves clunky and uninspired, if not occasionally confusing. The settings look conspicuously sparse, as though Rodriguez wanted to save on costs by omitting extras, giving the sense of a cheap production shot on unconvincing soundstages (though, there’s an arguable justification for this in the story, which I won’t reveal here). The editing leaves gaping holes in the plot, such as when Rourke and Cruz witness Dellrayne’s capture in Mexico, only for the movie to ignore that this happened in the next scene. And Hypnotic’s many twists in the second half neutralize any viewer investment, because every other scene reveals that everything we’ve just witnessed is a Hypnotic’s projection. The first one or two of these world-shattering moments were effective; by the fourth or fifth time, we become numb to their effect. And by the mid-credits scene that adds one last switcheroo, the tactic becomes eye-rollingly overplayed. 

Despite its overly familiar story, Hypnotic could have been an entertaining B-grade movie with an A-list star; instead, it’s a forgettable, flat experience that lost its fizz at the scripting stage. It plays like a half-assed Netflix production that you’ll watch and never think about again. It’s all the more aching because, by coincidence, I happened to revisit Rodriguez’s breakout hit, Desperado (1995), about a week before watching Hypnotic. His sophomore film crackles with humor, action, and sex appeal, revealing a filmmaker having fun exploring the limits of his medium and actors (Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek) who are up for anything. Unfortunately, the Rodriguez behind Hypnotic seems tired and beaten down, delivering a passionless product headed by performers who don’t seem to want to be there. The difference is emphasized when a cop in Hypnotic tells the same lively urination joke told by Quentin Tarantino in Desperado, but to humorless effect here. The juxtaposition is jarring and deflating, and I hope Rodriguez puts more energy into his next project. 

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