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There’s a gripping story about the dark side coming to a theater near you, but it’s not the one that takes place in a galaxy far, far away. Though, at times, it may certainly seem to: Kontroll, the debut of Hungarian-American writer-director Nimród Antal, is set entirely underground, in the Budapest subway system. If spending 106 minutes on a foreign Red Line doesn’t sound all that entertaining to you, rest assured that Antal makes his vision of the public transit everyone loves to hate a universe that’s compellingly odd, aggressive, and lonely—and often even fun.
A clipboard-mounted disclaimer read by a metro agent at the beginning of Kontroll emphasizes that Antal’s story is in no way reflective of the actual Budapest Transport Limited and that the fictional events about to take place are products of the director’s imagination, created as he indulged his interest in “the struggle between good and evil.” The subject matter sounds weighty, but Kontroll’s opening scene neatly establishes the kinda playful, kinda eerie tone that the movie will actually take: As a barely dressed and very drunk party girl tries to keep her balance on the escalator down to a station, she talks to herself and struggles to open a big bottle of champagne. She finally gets it open—yelling “Ahhh!” as it sprays in her face—then stumbles to the platform, precariously leaning forward on her high heels to see if a train’s coming. Seconds later, one whooshes by without stopping, and the only thing left on the platform is one of the reveler’s shoes.
On the surface, Kontroll, which was Hungary’s biggest film of 2003, is about a series of such incidents, which transit management assumes are suicides but are really the work of a serial killer. But the film is less murder mystery than peek into a swaggering boys’ club—of subway-ticket inspectors. The team we’re introduced to is a charmingly motley one, including the sarcastic, cynical Professor (Zoltán Mucsi), who tells his crew, “It’s not our fault if people want to jump under the trains and not ride them”; Muki (Csaba Pindroch), a tightly wound narcoleptic who passes out in the middle of his rants; and Tibi (Zsolt Nagy), the puppyish but clueless new guy, who in the American version of the movie would be played by Seann William Scott. The real focus, however, is Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a good-looking hangdog who, for reasons never explained, has taken to sleeping where he works and refuses to go aboveground.
Antal loads Kontroll with lots of grime, fluorescent-tinged darkness, and too-cool atmosphere. The inspectors, dressed in street clothes and equipped with armbands they whip out when performing their duties, become increasingly disheveled and even bloodied as they go about each day as the apparent bane of Budapest. Though Antal occasionally frames the guys as tough and hip—they walk the tunnels with the attitudes of Mafiosi as techno music plays—the passengers obviously don’t hold them in such high regard, regularly ridiculing, pushing around, or simply ignoring the enforcers who repeatedly mutter, “Ticket or pass, please.” Some of the movie’s best action scenes, in fact, come courtesy not of the hooded (and never identified) killer lurking the system but of an antagonistic free-rider named Bootsie (Bence Mátyássy), who luges down escalator rails and slides under gates as the inspectors run after him—again to thumping tracks provided by a now-defunct Hungarian duo called Neo.
Humor of several varieties permeates Kontroll, from a train overshooting the platform after the inspectors have smoothly lined up to board it to the Professor’s reactions to Tibi’s ill-aimed vomiting when the newbie sees his first victim: “Never mind, you can even piss on me if you like.” And, yes, there’s also that good-vs.-evil thing Antal initially set out to parse. This is most evident in Bulcsú, who witnesses both nightmarish desolation (and the alleged killer), when the tunnels are quiet, and hope of redemption, in the person of the lovely female passenger (Eszter Balla) who carefully tries to convince him to leave his underground purgatory. Bulcsú’s conflict may not have intergalactic ramifications, but it shows that what goes on under our feet is often more interesting than what happens up in space.
A killer likewise lurks in Mindhunters, a long-shelved Renny Harlin film that’s laughable as the psychological thriller it initially seems to be. As a low-aiming horror movie, though? Well, maybe it’s as worthy as the Paris Hilton–spearing House of Wax. But one thing’s for certain: To borrow a line from its curiously British-accented FBI agent, the grisly, dumb, and just plain nasty Mindhunters is, in contrast to the slyly spooky Kontroll, “as American as the death penalty.”
The movie takes seven wannabe FBI profilers and strands them on a desolate island for the last phase of their training. Their shelter is dark and dingy, and the area is populated only by dummy targets and, for some reason, cats. When self-doubting agent Sara (Kathryn Morris, just before Cold Case made her, uh, less obscure) discovers a bloody kitty hanging in one of the island’s spooky bathrooms with a watch stuck in its neck, the gang’s search for a fictional—or is it?—murderer begins. When the agents themselves actually start to die, Mindhunters turns into a less subtle version of Ten Little Indians. Or, as visiting investigator Gabe (LL Cool J) so eloquently puts it, “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo—who’s the next motherfucker to go?”
The dialogue, courtesy of Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin (scripters of The Cooler and Constantine, respectively), may actually be the classiest part of this dismal addition to Harlin’s oeuvre. And even filled with platitudes such as “Now is not the time for fear, people!” it’s definitely the most colorful. Mindhunters serves up one interchangeable character after another, with the exception of two who simply have weird chips on their shoulders: department head Jake Harris (Val Kilmer), a greasy, rumpled freak who seems too crazy to be in the FBI, and wheelchair-bound agent Vince (Clifton Collins Jr.), whose hair-trigger willingness to kill also makes him an unlikely officer.
The cast also includes Christian Slater, Eion Bailey, and the affectless Jonny Lee Miller, and such meager star power as they offer doesn’t prevent their characters from getting it good. Well, maybe not “good.” Even Mindhunters’ deaths are ridiculous, from one agent’s body shattering (bloodily, of course) from a blast of nitrogen to another’s head falling clean off, cause unseen.
The rapid narrowing of suspects and their weak alleged motives (sample: “The FBI didn’t save your sister!”) don’t add up to a resolution that makes much sense. But for certain bloodthirsty audience members, logic will be beside the point. And what could be more American than that? CP