In Hypnotic, Robert Rodriguez and Ben Affleck Get Back to the 2000s

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In Hypnotic, Robert Rodriguez and Ben Affleck Get Back to the 2000s

The science fiction of Hypnotic may involve powers worthy of the X-Men, able to distort and reshape victims’ perception, but the movie also indulges in a hyper-specific form of time travel. Unbeknownst to its characters, the film takes a leisurely tour of the 2000s. The 2003 John Woo puzzler Paycheck is its unlikely North Star, as the films share Ben Affleck attempting to piece together a futuristic mystery. Additional stops include 2001’s Memento (to pick up a polaroid photo inscribed with a possible clue), 2002’s Minority Report (to pilfer the cop still reeling from the unsolved abduction of his child) and 2007’s Next (for psychic powers with a slumming movie star). The multitude of movies (many but not all based on the writing of Philip K. Dick) that could be charitably cited as influences also include Nolan’s Inception, with its bendy cityscapes and hero’s trippy quest to find his way back to his child – though that’s an outlier as a 2010 release. Otherwise, it’s exceedingly easy to picture Affleck and director Robert Rodriguez putting this movie out in January 2008. You can almost picture the standard-definition DVD case on the Best Buy shelves as you watch it. For a certain demographic, this may constitute a kind of low-rent nostalgia.

Affleck, who seems to be aiming for a world-weary growl but mostly sounds congested, plays Danny Rourke, an Austin cop back on duty following the abduction of his daughter; though her kidnapper was caught, the child hasn’t yet been found. Staking out a tip about a possible bank robbery, Danny notices suspicious behavior from a man he later learns is named Lev Dellrayne (William Fichtner), who creates seemingly effortless distractions around him as he targets a single safety deposit box. Searching for answers, Danny follows a lead to sketchy psychic Diana (Alice Braga), who explains to him the powers of “hypnotics” – people with telepathic-style powers who extend beyond mind-reading into mind control. Could these unusual abilities have something to do with Danny’s missing daughter?

Yes, they could, and Hypnotic will explain how and plenty more, with multiple turns and twists annotated with info-dump monologues. Rodriguez, who also co-wrote with Max Borenstein, doesn’t have Nolan’s playful way with turning exposition into breathless action of its own. He’s an unapologetic student and practitioner of B-movies. Within that realm, Hypnotic is actually somewhat restrained, at times borderline classical: Blended with its 2000s plot points are the expedience, blunt dialogue and noirish venetian-blind shadows of a mid-to-lower-tier 1940s genre picture – with Affleck affecting a ragged, lummox-y dignity in the lead.

If this doesn’t sound actually good, well, Hypnotic is a modest picture; that’s part of its appeal, if applicable. There’s more mystery, brooding and explanation than big-ticket action (though Rodriguez still knows how to stage a motorcycle chase). Plenty of audiences will understandably dismiss the movie as an underpopulated DTV-level production, with Rodriguez out of his DIY Spy Kids garage, but not too far afield, tooling around convenient Austin locations. It’s definitely not up to the stylish heights of Rodriguez at his Once Upon a Time in Mexico/Spy Kids 2 peak, nor is it as polished a for-hire gig as his adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel. But there are some clever reasons for the movie’s small cast of characters and, in a fitting parallel with Nolan, it’s possible to read the sci-fi skullduggery as the director’s self-commentary on his filmmaking process. What is moviemaking, if not the process of magically convincing a bunch of suckers that your fakery is real, and then doing the same thing all over again? Look closely, and you might start seeing Hypnotic’s resemblance to a Spy Kids movie after all.

Hypnotic isn’t exactly a masterful illusion. Yet its images, utilizing more practical (or practical-looking) effects than Rodriguez’s typically green-screen-happy recent efforts, do have a certain baseline weight: The occasional splatter of real squibs, the unmistakable glow of actual red lighting, the heavy trudging of Affleck’s world-weariness. Does all of this add up to an electrifying movie experience? Absolutely not. But it does add up to 90 minutes and change, with several twists and one Jeff Fahey in a shotgun-toting supporting role. 20 years ago, that might not have been enough; Paycheck seemed pretty chintzy back in ’03. But right now, for the right kind of sucker, Hypnotic might hit the exact right spot in the brain that makes you give in to semi-stylish junk.

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez, Max Borenstein
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, JD Pardo
Release Date: May 12, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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