Headhunters

March 17, 2012
Screen shot 2012-05-01 at 10.49.11 PM

To what extremes would you go to preserve life and limb? Roger Brown, the protagonist of Headhunters goes about as far as can be imagined in escaping a would-be assassin. There are many moments in this film when most of us would settle for a bullet and the big sleep.

Roger, played by Norwegian actor, Aksel Hennie, is not the most sympathetic of heroes. He has a high-powered job with a firm of corporate headhunters in Olso, but manages to live way beyond his means. In order to pay for his expensive house, and his tall, blonde, trophy wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), he runs a side-line in art theft.

I won’t give away too many details, but everything goes pear-shaped for Roger when he encounters the mysterious Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), a rugged, handsome hunk who was a special forces commando before he became CEO of a techology company. Greve has a painting that would solve all Roger’s debt problems, but he is a very dangerous man to put offside.

In carrying out the art heist Roger finds that Greve and Diana have become a little too friendly. What he does not anticipate is that Greve, whom he decides not to recommend for a job, is a real headhunter – a cold, implacable killer who has no hesitation in eliminating anyone he sees as an obstacle. At this point it is if Danish director, Morten Tyldum, flicks a switch and launches the story into overdrive. Whoosh! It takes off like a missile, plunging us into the most breathless of chase sequences.

It is a manifestly uneven contest. Roger is small but surprisingly resourceful, while his opponent is a kind of evil James Bond, equipped with the latest high-tech tracking devices. Furthermore, it is Roger, not Greve, who is being sought by the police as a suspected murderer. As Roger’s situation becomes increasingly hopeless and his paranoia grows, the suspense meter dips into the red.

This film is based on a tale by Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian author being touted as “the new Stieg Larsson”. On the strength of this thriller, which combines ferocious action with the black humour of the Coen brothers, there will be plenty of viewers who race straight off to the bookshop for a Jo Nesbo novel. The only problem is that Headhunters comes in one of those ghastly covers announcing it is now a major motion picture. Furthermore, the first Nesbo novels have not yet been translated, so those who like to read a series in the correct sequence may have to emulate James Joyce who learnt Norwegian in order to read all of Ibsen’s plays.

It’s probably necessary to read the novel to understand various small puzzles such as: “Why is the hero called ‘Roger Brown’, instead of something more Scandinavian?”

Like all thrillers, Headhunters has its share of improbable occurrences. The director’s task is to keep the viewer so distracted that he or she never has time to reflect on the unlikeliness of the storyline. Here, Tyldum’s pacing is almost flawless.

Having said that thrillers are full of improbable events, has any Scandinavian crime writer come up with anything more extreme or unlikely than the atrocities of last year committed by Anders Brevik? Roger Brown’s misadventures may keep us entertained, but a real-world catastrophe has a sickening effect. It would be wrong to complain about the fantastic nature of a thriller. We don’t love these films because of their gritty realism, but because they take us away from a real world in which violence, murder and mayhem are no fun at all.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 17, 2012

Headhunters, Norway/Germany, Rated MA 15 +, 98 minutes