No role is more ripe for parody than that of the 80s TV detective. Outdated stars like Bergerac and Columbo walk the line between daft and genius as it is, without having their one liners and strange affectations sent up in a comedy. The new British film Mindhorn does exactly that. It stars Julian Barratt as an Isle of Man detective with an artificial eye, enabling him to literally “see the truth”.
Fictional actor Richard Thorncroft is called upon by the police to play the part of Mindhorn one last time. It’s all in an effort to catch a serial killer, who is under the impression that the TV sleuth is real. This preposterous premise is fertile ground for joke writing, and the film is a laugh a minute.
Barratt is a great physical comedian. He runs around awkwardly, at one point trying and failing to slide across a car bonnet, Dukes of Hazzard style. His stupid kung fu moves and inability to negotiate obstacles are slapstick gold.
Some aspects of Barratt’s performance are reminiscent of his role in the cult series The Mighty Boosh. In both he plays someone full of ‘banter’ and what he thinks are witty one liners that actually fall short of the mark and bamboozle people. There is something of Ron Burgundy from Anchorman in the character of Thorncroft too. Both men consider themselves suave and dynamic when they are in fact daft and inept.
The funniest character in the film is Thorncroft’s former stunt man. He has some of the best lines, most of which are effortless put downs aimed at the protagonist. Thorncroft is inexplicably attractive to the stunt man’s wife, the beautiful Patricia. This love triangle is central to the hero’s bid to recapture his best years. Simon Callow plays a minor role as a version of himself, and Steve Coogan features too. Incidentally, the film is not unlike Coogan’s Alpha Papa, in that it sophisticatedly fuses laughs with action.
The film becomes a little weird and grotesque when Thorncroft is gaffer-taped into his TV costume by the fugitive he’s trying to catch. Having just escaped from hospital, the criminal is a man on a mission, with a lair full of Mindhorn memorabilia and an obsession with what he calls the “apocalypse of justice”. As he becomes increasingly embroiled in the young man’s world, Thorncroft finds himself having to prove his own sanity. There is a definite edge to the picture, in that it does to some extent draw humour from mental illness and doesn’t shy away from violence.
At times the soundtrack rises to the fore, and you hear dramatic 80s synth music. This is something you might scoff at in its original context, but here it carries the film through its thrilling twists and turns, as well as the belly laughs.
Mindhorn is a well written, highly accessible piece of film, with all the makings of a British classic.