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‘Hypnotic’ review: Robert Rodriguez plays in his cinematic sandbox

There’s something strange about “Hypnotic,” the new action thriller from writer-director Robert Rodriguez. There’s a sheen of inauthenticity to the trailer for this film, which stars Ben Affleck as a detective working a bank robbery while wracked with guilt over the kidnapping of his young daughter. Indeed, for the first 30 minutes or so of “Hypnotic,” something rings false — it feels like Rodriguez sloppily executing a sketchy exercise in the tropes and aesthetics of a detective noir. But then you realize that’s by design.

Because things aren’t what they seem in “Hypnotic,” as Det. Danny Rourke (Affleck) discovers when he descends down the rabbit hole of this inexplicable bank robbery, one that ends with him finding a Polaroid of his missing daughter in a safe deposit box. He follows the signs to a local psychic, Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who unloads a baffling spiel about the “hypnotic constructs” weaponized by a mysterious man at the scene of the robbery whom they’re calling Dellrayne (William Fichtner), based on an inscription found on the Polaroid.

Thus unfolds Rodriguez’s “Hypnotic,” a mashup of “Inception,” “The Truman Show,” “Rashomon” and “X-Men.” After a few years directing TV and music videos, the film feels like Rodriguez getting back to his genre and indie roots, while working in his backyard of Austin, Texas, serving as director of photography (with Pablo Berron), editor and producer alongside his writing and directing duties, as he frequently does.

Some three decades after his breakout feature, “El Mariachi,” Rodriguez is still making films with the same run-and-gun indie ethos, and “Hypnotic” is indeed a refreshing reminder of that, as well as of his innate facility with cinematic style. “Hypnotic” sees Rodriguez playing with discrete aesthetics for the different spaces of this story, shooting on location and utilizing distinct lighting schemes and color-grading, demonstrating his ability with camera movements and shot compositions that signify a true filmmaker behind the lens.

But then there’s the matter of the script, co-written with Max Borenstein, and Affleck. The writing can only be described as complete mumbo-jumbo — there’s so much explaining, truly reams of exposition, and yet not nearly enough. Poor Braga is left to rattle off absolute nonsense regarding a secret government program to develop “hypnotic constructs” and the psychically gifted people being turned into weapons. And yet, there is little attention paid to the emotional underpinning of the story that would make us care enough about these people, and without that, it all feels so flimsy. The story is insanely, and impossibly, twisty, extending even after the credits have started to roll (please, no “Hypnotic 2”).

Affleck also seems completely at loose ends here. Perhaps he just wanted to go play in Rodriguez’s sandbox for a bit, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but his performance is utterly inert. He employs his gravelly Batman voice to mutter the noir-ish one-liners given to the grieving, grizzled, hollow-cheeked Det. Rourke. He’s not a man of action, but rather reaction, haplessly buffeted by the forces around him, expressionless, arms akimbo, standing around like a character in “The Sims” — which should be a tell as to which way the wind blows in “Hypnotic.”

As a film fan, you have to respect the continued indie spirit with which Rodriguez works, grinding out these projects outside of the traditional Hollywood system and forging his own path in the industry. It’s fun to see him color in new shades of film genre, but the script and performances in “Hypnotic” are too laughably absurd to take seriously.

Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Hypnotic’

Rating: R, for violence
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Starts May 12 in general release

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