Norwegian thriller makes us root for anti-hero

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, May 23, 2012 1:22pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

That rocketing sound you hear is the Norwegian film “Headhunters” heading toward the list of this year’s top-grossing foreign-language movies.

We always have a few foreign titles that try to out-do Hollywood at the suspense game, and “Headhunters” is an especially berserk example.

It’s based on a 2008 book by Jo Nesbo, whose name is not as well-known as fellow Scandinavian Stieg Larsson, although Nesbo’s books have sold more than a million copies. The film version presents a protagonist who is perhaps the least sympathetic hero of a movie in a while. The fiendish strategy of the movie is how it makes us root for him.

He is Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a headhunter for the high-rolling business world in Norway. By his own description, he is a short man who compensates for his stature by acquiring a towering wife and buying her the most expensive stuff around.

A sideline in crime — a series of thefts of expensive art — helps pay for this habit. But a really big score goes awry, and this rotten guy, this least likely movie hero, must scramble to stay alive against some very organized foes.

It’s quite a ride. “Headhunters” may be entirely superficial in its effects, and it has a few plot turns that I had a hard time reconciling with any credible version of human behavior — even movie behavior.

But man oh man, this thing moves along. Roger keeps getting in some new sticky situation, and the skills that he had honed as a businessman-predator come to serve him well in the business of staying alive, especially as his problems grow increasingly bizarre.

Can’t say much more than that, as the twists are very much part of the fun. Director Morten Tyldum might be interested in launching a Hollywood career thanks to this movie, or might not. But he’s got the gonzo energy of a born thriller-maker.

Aksel Hennie is exactly right as the anti-hero with the Napoleon complex, his early swagger shifting into panic and, later, steely determination. One of the most irritating aspects about movie heroes is when they do stupid things just to keep the plot moving along. Even if you don’t like Roger Brown, you have to admit that he does clever things to save his own neck.

The best-known member of the cast is Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, a regular on the TV series “Game of Thrones.” He enters the movie as both a possible romantic rival for the attention of Roger’s wife (who is beginning to catch on to her husband’s borderline-sociopath attitudes) and as someone who might just have an extremely valuable piece of art sitting around his apartment.

Did we mention that he is tall? Very tall? Ah, now you can see how the plot could get into gear. And watching those gears rotate at high speed is very much the pleasure of this crazy movie.

“Headhunters” (3 stars)

A fiendishly clever thriller from Norway about a corporate recruiter (Aksel Hennie) and part-time art criminal who finds himself trying to survive when the tables are turned on him. The movie rockets along over possible plot holes, and makes us root for the survival of a total anti-hero. In Norwegian, with English subtitles.

Rating: R, for violence, nudity.

Showing: Varsity theater.

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