2023, R, 93 min. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Starring Ben Affleck, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, Hala Finley, Dayo Okeniyi, Jeff Fahey, Jackie Earle Haley, J.D. Pardo, Zan Holtz.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 12, 2023

There are three Robert Rodriguezes. There's the father who tells kids stories, and has launched (and is currently relaunching) the Spy Kids series. There's the super-stylish genre fan who made super-noir Sin City and live-action anime Alita: Battle Angel. And then there's Rodriguez the scuzzy B-movie fan whose Mexico trilogy – El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico – sweated, greasy, sullen sex and violence.

Now that Rodriguez, we haven't seen in a while, but he's definitely lurking around in Hypnotic, the Austin filmmaker's long-gestating Hitchcock-inspired thriller that debuted as a work in progress at South By Southwest.

It's a throwback at so many levels, and not just because of the influence of Hitchcock's Freudian crime flicks like Vertigo. This is a strangely overdue union of two giants of Nineties indie cinema with a strong Austin connection – Rodriguez and Dazed & Confused star Ben Affleck – in a nasty, twisty little crime yarn with a psycho-sci-fi twist. Affleck gets to play the lantern-jawed cop who's lost too much: in this case, his daughter, abducted from a park right in front of him. Finally allowed back on duty, his first call back is to prevent a bank robbery, but it's clear this is no regular heist when William Fichtner turns up. Actually, it's Fichtner as Dellrayne, a seemingly psychic supercriminal with the power to induce hallucinations in everyone around him, but no one does "malevolent yet blasé" like Fichtner, just as no one does world weary and sad-eyed quite like Affleck, or side-eying intrigue and deception like Alice Braga, here playing back-alley fortune teller and femme fatale Diana Cruz. And, of course, everyone seems to know more about the heist, his missing daughter, and how the two are connected than he does.

It's all deliciously pulpy, so maybe this is the fourth, lesser-recognized Rodriguez. Maybe this is the popcorn-and-bubblegum Rodriguez, the filmmaker who remembers that movies can just be distracting fun, the director of unabashedly earnest Fifties throwback Roadracers and globetrotting soccer spy series Matador. This is Rodriguez the lover of the C-movie, the kind of filmmaker that Roger Corman would have adored. Hypnotic has that run-and-gun energy, rough around the edges but not in a way that impinges on the fun. It's also Rodriguez flexing some old action muscles, with that opening heist arguably his most bruising and well-constructed practical set-piece in a couple of decades. And, yes, those years have definitely changed him: After all, it's hard to imagine that, circa Sin City, he would have made a film so explicitly about the terrors of fatherhood. He's also more prepared than ever to get truly weird, as Hypnotic makes the biggest midpoint genre jump of his career since road trip crime flick From Dusk Till Dawn became a vampire classic. It's cinema as flat-out fun, and there's just not enough of that.

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Hypnotic, Robert Rodriguez, Ben Affleck, Alice Braga, William Fichtner, Hala Finley, Dayo Okeniyi, Jeff Fahey, Jackie Earle Haley, J.D. Pardo, Zan Holtz

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