Enter Mindhorn blind and you might be surprised at just how starry the, Sean Foley directed, production’s cast list is. Without giving away the full roster (including one particularly rib-tickling cameo), Andrea Riseborough – so powerful in Channel 4’s National Treasure – holds a prime billing here, as does Steve Coogan – whose production company, Baby Cow, has associate credits too. From The Mighty Boosh, meanwhile, Julian Barratt takes the lead role of Richard Thorncroft, the washed-up former star of hit eighties, Isle of Man cop-drama: ‘Mindhorn’. Thorncroft’s career, once so promising as to boast merchandise, has hit the rocks since then and his agent (Harriet Walter) has all but given up of him. This is, of course, predominantly due to Thorncroft’s penchant for offending both his co-stars and the entire population of the Isle of Man alike. An infamous interview having proved particularly damning: ‘We’ve never forgotten what you said about us on Wogan’. The epitome of his fall from grace is that he now even suffers from the indignity of having been replaced by John Nettles in adverts for thrombosis socks. To add insult to injury, Thorncroft’s lost weight in his hair and found it in his waist.
Opportunity knocks for Thorncroft however when an infantile convict on the Isle of Man, styling himself as ‘the Kestrel’ (Russell Tovey), announces that he will only negotiate with Mindhorn – the twist being that said falco tinnunculus is strident in his belief in that the former detective is in fact real. With the police resigned to the lack of alternative options, Thorncroft is thus recalled to the island to take to the role ‘one last time’, save the day and (even better) reignite his dead-in-the-water career. A further bonus would be the resumption of his former relationship with former lover and co-star, Patricia Deville (Essie Davies) – the snag here being that Patricia is now in a settled relationship with Mindhorn’s Dutch, semi-naked stunt double, Clive Parnevik (Simon Farnaby, co-writing with Barratt and giving himself a fair share of the best gags in the process).
With Thorncroft characterised as being self-centred, delusional and thoughtlessly unfiltered, there’s definitely something of the Alan Partridge to Mindhorn, only emphasised by the presence of Coogan as his unsympathetic sidekick-turned lead, Peter ‘Windjammer’ Easterman. Likewise, the original ‘Mindhorn’ series is as delightfully awful a pastiche as Partridge’s Knowing Me Knowing You, with the detective convolutedly defined by his eye having been replaced with an x-ray eyepatch. AKA: ’he could literally see the truth’. Faux-archive clips from the show see Mindhorn solve crimes with a cheesy aplomb that is all too familiar (‘In a world of lies, one man has had enough’), each episode allowing its protagonist the opportunity to expunge his potent masculinity (i.e. chest hair) upon Patricia’s swooning sex-symbol. The problem is that whereas Partridge is a character that has ingrained himself into the public psyche through years of development and exposure, the effect of Mindhorn is somewhat weakened by the rapidity with which it is necessary for the film to establish the character and strive for similar levels of affection. At times the whole thing feels rather like an in-joke to which the audience is not privy.
Furthermore, Mindhorn lacks the consistent sharpness of, say, Alpha Papa. Barratt and Farnaby’s script is at its best when delivering quick and smutty wordplay – ‘Come alone’/‘I always do’ – but too often relies on broader strains of comedy, and laughs dependent of the mere presence of Thorncroft on screen. Barratt’s is a strong presence in the role, but your tolerance of the character will stand or fall within the first thirty minutes – if its not for you you’ll know it and the rest of the film will likely prove unbearable, albeit mercifully brief at just 89 minutes. On the other hand, for those who do click with the humour, laughs are consistent and genuinely hearty. The weak and derivative plot, meanwhile, is perhaps forgivable as being a nod to the rhythms of the eighties tone it mocks.
Ultimately, sporadic fun never quite feels enough to sustain the momentum of Mindhorn. There’s not much by way of emotional investment – though Tovey does his best – and precious little innovation, yet it’s not unentertaining whilst it lasts.