The only winning move is not to play.
Who doesn’t love a smart thriller about a genius serial killer playing deadly games with the lawmen on their tail? From Seven to Copycat to The Chaser, it’s a setup that’s resulted in greatness while still leaving flexibility in its narrative and characters. Legendary actor Al Pacino has walked this path before resulting in both highs (Sea of Love, Insomnia) and lows (Righteous Kill, 88 Minutes) for the genre, and unfortunately his latest film, Hangman, belongs in the lowest rung of the latter group.
A van sideswipes Det. Archer’s (Pacino) vintage car leading to a pursuit with other squad cars that ends with the unseen suspect in custody — but not before Archer notices an odd piece of jewelry hanging from the van’s rear-view mirror. Don’t worry, this opening is irrelevant and unnecessary. Cut to some time later, and Det. Ruiney (Karl Urban) is unhappy as he’s been tasked with letting a journalist shadow him for a few days. Christi Davies (Brittany Snow) has the mayor’s approval meaning there’s no getting rid of her, and the pair are together when the first hanging body is found. A letter is carved into the woman’s chest, a game of Hangman is written on a wall, and Davies notices Ruiney’s badge number carved nearby — with Archer’s right beside it. The two detectives are old acquaintances who went their separate ways after Archer got a demotion and Ruiney’s wife was murdered, but now they’re forced together to stop a killer delivering a new letter and a new corpse every day.
Oh, and the person who killed Ruiney’s wife was never caught. I wonder if it’s somehow related to the current case.
From the “brilliant” killer’s game to the pair of cops — one grizzled, one fresh! — in pursuit, Hangman is as formulaic in its structure as they come. Bland thrillers can still entertain, but unfortunately this one doubles down on its sins by also being incredibly idiotic and unnecessarily convoluted.
The weakest element in the script (credited to Michael Caissie, Phil Hawkins, and Charles Huttinger) is the inclusion of the journalist. Her presence is fine, and Snow gives a competent performance, but her every moment is another example of illogical and unrealistic behavior. She tramps all through crime scenes without gloves or concern for contaminating the evidence, and more than once she enters a dangerous area while her armed handlers are in search of the suspect. It’s dumb behavior worsened by the film’s acceptance of it as normal. Perhaps as a way of balancing her dumbfounding ignorance, though, she’s also the one who’s constantly finding new clues the actual detectives have missed. The one time Archer makes a connection — a realization that wraps up the case — it serves only to confirm that he should have had these dots connected long before then.
The killer isn’t even all that bright, but he’s a Mensa member compared to these jokers.
The mentally incapacitated frustrations continue elsewhere as well. Each clue sees our heroes arrive at the next crime scene just in time to watch someone die, but twice they arrive and actually see the killer. Do they pursue him? This murderer who’s leaving a trail of dead bodies all over the city? No. Each time they let some minor distraction pull their attention elsewhere, and the killer simply walks away.
Performance-wise the film is equally unfortunate. As mentioned above, Snow is fine but flat, while Urban does a solid job showing some investment in his character’s troubles. Pacino, meanwhile, chooses to sleepwalk through much of the film. His outbursts are muted, his energy is lacking, and he looks like someone who woke up mere moments before the camera started rolling. There are some attractive shots throughout the film highlighting the Southern locale, and brief action beats are handled well enough by director Johnny Martin, but none of it is enough to overcome the negatives.
Hangman is an uninteresting affair from beginning to end, and for viewers it’s a game they’re guaranteed to lose.