Seasoned moviegoers complain these days that blockbuster franchises and formulaic streaming fare have all but squeezed out the midbudget character-driven drama. But it’s worse than that. The state of the biz isn’t doing wonders for tight, low-budget, midlength action thrillers with sci-fi or supernatural plot hooks, either. So on learning that, after almost a decade working primarily in television or on movies with a strong Y.A. slant, the dynamic director Robert Rodriguez has a Ben Affleck-led suspense thriller called “Hypnotic” in theaters, even a casual genre hound might cock an intrigued eyebrow.
Affleck plays Donald Rourke, a detective in Austin, Texas, who is traumatized by the kidnapping of his small daughter several years back. On a stakeout one day, he and his crew surveil a chilly-voiced older man (William Fichtner) whose cryptic words mesmerize several hapless bystanders and compel them to carry out a bloody bank job. Beating Fichtner’s character to the safe deposit box he is after, Rourke finds a Polaroid of his own daughter, with an enigmatic message scrawled beneath.
A phone message leads him to the psychic Diana Cruz (Alice Braga), who explains the existence of “hypnotics,” powerful beings who can control others with their words and thoughts. Conveniently, Affleck has a psychic block that prevents him from being affected. His partner doesn’t, though. After a grisly scene in which Rourke’s partner, now hypnotized, tries to sever his own wrist from a handcuff in order to kill them, Rourke and Diana have to flee to Mexico.
If the movie were just these two going from action set piece to action set piece with Braga’s character pulling Jedi mind tricks along the way, it would have been satisfactory. Rodriguez, after all, has always been a way-above-average camera director and action choreographer. But he’s going for something more ambitious here. When Rourke starts seeing a Mexican street extending into the air and curving, you grok that the director — who has his own studio in Austin, where this was shot — is going for a homegrown Christopher Nolan variant.
This is, arguably, biting off more than “Hypnotic” can comfortably chew, both conceptually and for the production. When Affleck is confronted by a posse of psychics wearing crimson sports jackets, for instance, you wonder if maybe he’s wandered into a convention of Red Lobster senior managers. As the scenario veers into familial-sentimentality-with-shootouts territory, the goofiness quotient increases. But the movie is, if nothing else, ruthlessly efficient enough in delivering its crowd-pleasing bits that truly starving suspense genre hounds, at least, won’t necessarily mind.
Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.