‘Hangman’ Wastes the Talents of Al Pacino and Karl Urban

The studio that brought you “Power Rangers” now brings you “Hangman,” a movie will less shiny costumes and a lot more grisly murders. Unlike “Power Rangers,” “Hangman” isn’t going to be selling many action figures. Produced by Saban Films, “Hangman” follows two detectives and a journalist on the hunt for a killer who fashions his murders after the children’s game Hangman, with each victim left hanging with a letter carved into their chest. The killer continues to hang a new victim every night until his word is finally spelled. Much like the movie itself, the word doesn’t really amount to much. Just an exercise in pointless brutality and a stale detective formula.  

Detective Archer (Al Pacino) has been retired for a year. Detective Ruiney (Karl Urban) is attempting to solve the mystery of his murdered wife, when he’s forced to take on a journalist, Christi Davies (Brittany Snow) who was assigned to report on his beat. The two detectives and the journalist cross paths when Ruiney discovers the first hung body outside a school, and both detectives’ badge numbers carved into a classroom desk. After the killer calls them out, the old friends reunite, and attempt to uncover the mystery of the Hangman, who proceeds to murder a new victim every night at 11pm sharp. Eventually, Ruiney and Archer discover that the Hangman has a personal connection to both of them, and they must race to save the lives of their loved ones before the killer finishes his game.

The concept must have sounded like a stroke of genius when director Johnny Martin pitched Saban his movie. It does indeed create some interesting visual images in the mind’s eye. A body hanging with a letter carved into the chest is provocative and unusual. It turns out though, that basing an entire movie around this concept doesn’t work too well. Especially when the movie that revolves around it is completely by-the-numbers.

The detective story plods along at a snail’s pace. Every time there’s a new murder, Detectives Archer and Ruiney arrive JUST too late to save the victim. Sometimes this is followed by a chase scene, or an intense confrontation between the detectives. They go back to police headquarters to reassess and see what new evidence they’ve got. They find some new clue and go to a new location, only to arrive too late once again. Rinse and repeat.

“Hangman” is comprised of a series of sequences that literally repeat themselves again and again. The detectives seem like idiots, because they’re always two steps behind the killer. They only manage to notice clues when the killer literally spells them out, and even then, the characters never seem invested in the case. Director Martin fails to elicit any excitement out of his actors. There isn’t one moment of clue-deciphering that feels genuine, that makes me believe these cops are truly interested in their case. Indeed, the detectives walk around like they know they’re stuck in a stale and formulaic movie where every subsequent scene is telegraphed ahead of time. There’s no real reason for them to care.

Al Pacino looks like he’s sleepwalking through the film. Perhaps this is appropriate. His character, Archer, reluctantly comes out of retirement, and Pacino plays it like he’s method acting. He walks around slowly, blinks sleepily, and growls his talking points with vague disinterest. I can hardly blame him. The movie offers nothing for the actor to really chew on, aside from a convincing Southern accent. Archer is just the latest is a string of disappointing roles for Pacino, who’s still a powerhouse actor when he’s given the right material.

Karl Urban has the opposite problem. He plays Ruiney with as much strength, determination and anger as he can muster. Ruiney’s anguish over his wife’s murder is palpable, and you can feel Urban carrying that burden with him in every scene. The effort is admired, but it’s wasted on this film. Urban has long gotten stuck with roles that don’t do the actor’s talents justice. With his memorable turn in “Thor: Ragnorak” recently behind him, hopefully he’ll continue to get more interesting roles than the haunted detective stereotype “Hangman” affords him.

Brittany Snow’s journalist, Davies, feels like a third wheel. The actress is competent enough at playing an inquisitive character with deep-seated emotional scars. But her entire presence in the movie is questionable. Bringing a journalist along for every grisly sequence serves to distance us from the action rather than involve us. The investigate aspect of the film might have been more intriguing without her hanging around in the background questioning motives.

Clearly Davies’ role in the film was meant to elevate “Hangman” above the detective genre. There’s a remark early on in the film about the conflicts between the police and the citizens, and Davies wants to write the world from a detective’s point of view. This could have been an interesting angle in a more competent film, but in “Hangman” it just plays as bizarre pro-cop propaganda and an obvious attempt to force a political viewpoint into the film. As it turns out, attempting to give cultural context to a film that pushes zero boundaries is doomed to end in vain.

In “Hangman’s” most ridiculous moment, the detectives leave a mentally unstable witness in a holding cell after informing her that her girlfriend was murdered. Moreover, they leave her with a metal soda can. She uses it to slit her wrists, and the detectives barely get back in time to save her. The next scene features the police captain berating the two detectives for being incompetent, while they stupidly stand there and take it. Of course, the captain is right.

This is a microcosm of exactly what’s wrong with “Hangman.” When the two lead characters are the dumbest people in a detective story, there’s no hope for success. “Hangman” comes across as nothing but a stale and formulaic detective film with great actors who are completely wasted. The concept is mildly intriguing, but it results in a film that simply repeats its own beats again and again. It’s as repetitive as a game of Hangman.     

Hangman” releases Dec. 22 in select cities.