Norwegian Roger Brown (Hennie) works as a headhunter, scouting potential applicants for executive jobs, but also executes high- end art robberies. Danish Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) has the qualifications for a post Brown needs to fill and has just inherited a Rubens, so Brown targets him — only to discover Greve is a different type of headhunter.
Norwegian author Jo Nesbo’s novel Headhunters has been an international bestseller, and is already set to be remade by Hollywood. Indeed, the material seems designed to play well outside the currently hot bubble of Scandinavian thriller cinema and TV (look for Julie R. Ølgaard, the murdered Nanna Birk Larsen in the original Danish version of The Killing, in a crucial film noir mystery woman role). International aspirations are obvious, even down to the protagonist’s absurdly accent-free Anglo name: how many Norwegians are called Roger Brown? That said, it’s still an off-beat, thoroughly gripping crime picture.
At first, this is as much character study as thriller, with lovely haired narrator Roger (Aksel Hennie, from that Sean Bean/Danny Dyer World War II quickie Age Of Heroes) admitting that insecurity about his average height compels him to steal paintings in an attempt to hang on to his glamorous, out-of-his-league wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). We see how Roger’s magazine layout life is set up, with an expensive home he doesn’t even like, and the deft system he has for stealing artwork. For a while, the film verges on becoming a ‘how to’ manual for those in these recessionary times considering a career in high-end burglary, full of fascinating tips about how to get away with it. Evidently, you shouldn’t waste too much time on getting a proper forgery to hang in place of the picture you’re stealing since a reasonable photocopy will pass muster in the dark long enough for you to make a getaway and dispose of the original on the black market.
Then, Roger runs into Clas (ruggedly handsome Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of Game Of Thrones), an IT surveillance high-flyer who seems exactly the sort of prize guy Diana will leave him for, and resolves to relieve him of the Rubens which has showed up in his aunt’s attic. Only it turns out that before he was a corporate suit, Clas was a counter-terrorist operative prone to going off the reservation to bring down his targets, with a shadow agenda which isn’t likely to pan out well for anyone who crosses him. This leads to an escalating nightmare which finds the smooth criminal literally dunked in shit — as well as forced to shave off his hair for grotesquely high-tech reasons — when it turns out someone is now hunting his head, and not metaphorically.
Though Roger is scarcely likable, the film does get caught up in his escalating troubles as his perfect, amoral life is ripped apart piece by piece and he is hunted across the open country by cops and killers. There’s a decent enough puzzle inside the survival/endurance test plot, and director Morten Tyldum manages to cope with a great deal of the business involving complicated clues which can clutter up adaptations of crime novels. There are doses of the old ultra-violence — sometimes darkly comical, as when it turns out that being sandwiched between obese twin cops in the back of a car during a horrific crash is the only thing that keeps Roger alive long enough to seek revenge. The film begins in a monied, safe-seeming city and then heads out into the countryside, where the cold and a hostile nature are as much a threat to the anti-hero as the official and unofficial forces intent on tracking him down and polishing him off.
A slick thriller which takes place in a moral vacuum. It’s fascinating rather than exciting, but makes for chilly thrills with two strong, charismatic lead performances, a great deal of style and amusingly repulsive, ruthless twists.