Written by: Michael Caissie, Charles Huttinger
Directed by: Johnny Martin
Starring: Karl Urban, Al Pacino, and Brittany Snow
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You want this thing to make some kind of sense? That's not the world."
A movie like Hangman brings conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you can’t just dismiss a movie boasting the likes of Al Pacino or Karl Urban, much less one that features both. But on the other, the fact that this one was unceremoniously dumped straight to video with little fanfare also speaks volumes. You can only get so excited, even if plenty of filmmakers have been doing excellent work on that front lately. Hangman isn’t likely to be included among those efforts anytime soon, though: while it’s hardly some sort of a disaster, it’s not exactly the sort of film that inspires any kind of a passionate defense. Simply put: it sure is there, and it is a movie—a movie quite like many others you’ve probably seen, and even the stellar cast can’t outrun that familiarity.
Urban is Will Ruiney, a detective whose life is in…ahem, ruins following the death of his wife about a year ago. Strung-out and still obsessed with finding her killer, he’s still on the beat, chasing leads and investigating gruesome crime scenes, albeit with a weariness that hangs on his face at every moment. His latest case is particularly grisly affair involving a murdered teacher whose intricately mutilated body reveals evidence of a ritual killer whose calling card includes carving letters into his victims’ body as part of an elaborate game of hangman. What’s more, he’s specifically called out both Ruiney and his retired partner Ray Archer (Pacino) to play by carving their badge numbers into a desk at the crime scene. Naturally, Archer is just looking for a reason to ditch retirement, so he’s quick to join his old friend on the case, where he’ll also be riding alongside a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (Brittany Snow) who’s been tasked with doing an intimate feature on police work.
With a premise this moldy, Hangman either qualifies as either a Seven or Saw rip-off; either way, its sell-by date is well expired, especially since there’s no attempt to invigorate this playful, “twisted game” formula. In fact, one of the script’s biggest blunders is essentially keeping the audience in the dark: sure, this enigmatic killer is playing hangman with the detectives, but none of the clues really ever mean anything to the audience, leaving them to sit around and wait for the characters to unravel them and breeze onto the next scene. Actually, that might not be entirely accurate since there’s really not that much waiting involved: it turns out these two detectives are both preternaturally smart, capable of figuring out the Hangman’s clues almost immediately and lucky enough to have other clues literally appear before their eyes.
But again, none of these revelations actually ever mean anything to the audience, who are swiftly introduced to new names and characters that will soon be dispatched by the killer anyway. See, that’s the part of the gimmick: somehow, each victim is connected to the next, only most of them are literally just random characters to be offed. As such, the film moves at a superficial, breakneck pace, perhaps in an effort to distract viewers from just how goddamn preposterous it all is. Seriously: even Jigsaw would have to admire the amount of contrived nonsense at work here, as the game becomes increasingly ludicrous, even though the detectives are able to put the pieces together quite quickly. For whatever reason, the film doesn’t even invite the audience to play along with the actual hangman game, as the two detectives themselves don’t seem to be all that interested in solving the puzzle until the end, at which point the script pulls an expository, groan-inducing rabbit out of its hat to reveal the killer’s identity.
Ironically enough, these two whip smart dudes don’t see the two most obvious twists coming: one involves the super predictable identity of the person who killed Ruiney’s wife, while the other involves a connection with a perp Archer confronts in the film’s prologue. Somehow, both of these are treated as huge, dramatic revelations when just about everyone in the audience will have already connected those dots early on. Imagine a magician revealing a tired trick to a classroom of bored schoolchildren: that’s Hangman, a movie that constantly feels impressed with itself as its audience yawns throughout.
Maybe if anyone involved had actually realized that the movies it’s ripping off thrive more on drama than cheap thrills, Hangman might have had a shot. In fact, it seems very likely given the cast, all of whom deserve better than what they have to work with here. But to their credit, they’re still bringing solid efforts. Urban continues to be one of our more underappreciated stars, and Hangman provides some fine evidence of that fact: even when tasked with one of the most cliché roles imaginable, he’s rather magnetic, capable of generating audience sympathy with a hound dog face that simmers with rage and desperation. If there’s any genuine reason to watch Hangman, it’s to see his character exact vengeance for his wife—as rote as it is, Urban sells it tremendously.
Pacino, of course, doesn’t have much to prove at this point, but it’s nice to see he still won’t sleepwalk through something like this. Actually, he provides the other reason to bother with Hangman: forget the mystery surrounding the killer’s identity—I’d like someone to figure out whatever the hell accent Pacino’s affecting here. Surveying the surrounding Atlanta shooting locations and apparently ingesting them like they were peyote, he summons up an outrageous deep south drawl that has more life than, well, everything else in the entire movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an entire performance coast exclusively on an accent before, so Hangman at least has that going for it.
It’s just too bad that these two are really never given a chance to actually carry the movie. Rather, they’re essentially cogs in a boilerplate narrative that hums along without much of a fuss. Because Hangman moves at such a breakneck pace, there’s no real sense of investment with its characters, particularly Snow’s journalist, who’s reduced to the ultimate third wheel pretty swiftly. Her dynamic as a journalist sworn to secrecy is quickly rendered moot (especially once the Hangman’s killing spree attracts national attention), meaning she’s mostly just functioning as another detective.
All of this is fine, I guess, because that’s what Hangman has been specifically engineered to be: a familiar murder mystery that turns up some finely mutilated corpses here and there to distract you from a bland routine. From its inception its natural habitat was always destined to be the Wal-Mart $5 bin, an ecosystem where the likes of Hangman can thrive: bolstered by its big stars, it seems just competent enough to trick you into playing its game.
Hangman is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Special features include a 6-minute interview with Pacino, plus a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with the rest of the cast and crew.
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