It’s interesting how revealing it is to see filmmakers play out their old ideas that have been outshined by the movie world around them having already caught up. Writer/director Robert Rodriguez developed the story for Hypnotic back in 2002. While it may have felt novel back then to deliver a strange sort of heist film that plays with the reality inside one’s mind, it’s not hard to pinpoint what other movies have since already done that in excitedly creative ways. Sure, it’s not as though having a handful of films featuring similar concepts is unheard of or inherently wrong, but much like how Shyamalan’s Glass dared to talk down to audiences about how comic books work in 2019’s geek-favored cinematic environment, Hypnotic feels a bit too late to have anything all that creative to say.
In the film, Ben Affleck stars as Danny Rourke, an Austin Police Department detective embroiled in an intriguing bank robbery plot involving a mysterious man (William Fichtner). It would appear this man is controlling the minds of innocents to help in his scheme. Adding further complications for Rourke, the whole plot somehow ties to the abduction of his seven-year-old daughter from years earlier. What is this all about? Well, Rourke seeks help from a fortuneteller, Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who explains the nature of “Hypnotics,” a group of powerful hypnotists trained by the government. But what is Rourke in all of this?
Here’s the thing – Ben Affleck has had such a whirlwind of a career. However, while he’s become a proven filmmaker and has certainly delivered some career-best acting performances in recent years, I still feel it’s clear that he’s just not the go-to guy for genre films. Whether playing an autistic accountant/assassin or a memory-wiped time traveler, these roles just don’t hit the guy as well as what he can offer either in a comedic manner or, even better, as a down-on-his-luck, shadier type. And this is to say nothing of his superhero endeavors, which have had mixed results. (For the record, I think his Bruce Wayne is pretty good, but not a revelation.)
In the case of Hypnotic, a large issue stems from how uninteresting I found Rourke to be as the guy at the center of this mystery. Were he to be surrounded by colorful characters like in Inception, or if there was either a quirk Affleck could play with or, preferably, an actor who naturally brings that factor (think Jake Gyllenhaal), I could believe in Hypnotic having the edge it needed to help it stand out (total speculation, but I’m sure early 2000s era Johnny Depp would have been Rodriguez’s first choice). As it stands, based on the structure, the movie ends up feeling largely generic for a good portion of the runtime, only to ramp up in its story choices yet still be plagued by the problems involving a detached star.
Outside of that, speaking to what Rodriguez brings, Hypnotic is a somewhat curious study of a director seemingly trying to branch out of his comfort zone. For someone who has largely avoided the studio system and has been mostly content to make films on his own terms (which includes shooting, editing, and scoring them all on his own property and other familiar areas), it was frankly neat to see a Rodriguez film that utilized a variety of locations. With an aim to deliver something a bit grittier, I was at least happy to see this film explore different spaces and take on the guise of a high-level release.
As a director who has often worked with his back against the wall when it comes to ambition outweighing the budget, it’s a fun trick to watch Rodriguez delivering what could be taken as a Nolan film without a studio catering to his every whim. Rodriguez has somehow carved out a niche where he both rarely leaves the sandbox he’s set up for himself but is still something of a punk rock director (who occasionally and happily makes colorful, kid-friendly films). It’s just a shame the writing does not do the movie any favors.
Co-written by Max Borenstein (Godzilla vs. Kong), this is the kind of film highly dependent on late-stage reveals in a way that is detrimental to what takes place beforehand. Again, if Affleck had more to work with or the setup had more than just a mystery box to go on, perhaps the build-up to new discoveries would have been more worthwhile. Instead, Hypnotic plays as a fairly generic cop flick before taking a swerve into a more sci-fi-minded head-trip…that’s still fairly generic.
This is the sort of film where Alice Braga monologues a lot about how hypnotism and false realities work to an adult man who should not be this naïve, even in the category of films where people never have pop culture awareness. It’s the kind of movie where the edits used to surprise audiences with one actor replacing the other in various scenes to signify how someone’s mind is being messed with becomes predictable. In practice, there are ways in which this stuff can work out for the sake of a better-than-average flick. With Hypnotic, it lacks the means to gel together more excitingly.
I’m always interested in what Robert Rodriguez has to offer, as I see so much potential in what he can bring to a rigid studio system. Hypnotic is not without a sense of energy and the feeling of a movie wanting to have audiences explore within the ideas it presents. However, the film feels a little too late to the party when it comes to a concept taking you inside of the mind, however that ends up playing out. Were it a bit less muted in presentation, perhaps the film could have been a more stimulating cerebral exercise. As it stands, I felt like my brain knows better.