Mindhorn is half of a great film. For 45 minutes or so, it’s great fun, co-writers and stars Julian Barratt (one half of The Mighty Boosh) and Simon Farnaby (probably best known for the Horrible Histories TV series) finding comic gold in the tale of Richard Thorncroft, the star of cheesy 80s action show Mindhorn who, 25 years on, has fallen so low that he has no choice but to advertise male girdles and support socks. When a serial killer strikes and insists he’ll only speak to Detective Mindhorn, Thorncroft sees his chance to triumphantly return to the limelight, but this promising premise fizzles out as the film runs out of ideas and resorts to clumsy, cliched plotting and laboured humour.
Thorncroft is played with wholehearted conviction by Barratt, who displays both great comic timing and a gift for physical comedy. Many of the best scenes revolve around his Alan Partridge-esque denial of how far he has fallen, hugging and reminiscing with a baffled Kenneth Branagh prior to a spectacularly unsuccessful audition and desperately trying to keep up a facade of success in front of anyone who makes him feel even slightly inferior. Flashbacks to the filming of Mindhorn are also very effective, the show is an affectionate parody of 80s action TV shows, starring a detective who can “literally see the truth” thanks to a bionic eye and who foils evil and beds ladies with equal gusto. Finally, it’s made clear that mentally, Thorncroft never really moved on from the 1980s, with one great scene revolving around him assisting a male and female police officer. Being the gallant 80s gentleman that he is, Thorncroft strides to the car and holds open the passenger door, only for the female officer to walk around the other side and get in the driver’s seat. He’s then left holding the door open for the male officer, who responds with a baffled thanks while Thorncroft attempts to maintain his air of cool. It’s a beautifully underplayed sequence in a film full of bombast, and sums up Thorncroft’s sexism perfectly.
Farnaby plays Clive Parnevik, Mindhorn’s former stunt double who is now together with Thorncroft’s former co-star Patricia Deville. Who exactly Parnevik is a spoof of I’m not really sure, but Farnaby gives him a ludicrous Dutch accent and has him potter around the house in a short shorts and tank top combo that leaves little to the imagination. He also hates Thorncroft, feeling that he ignored his role in the show by casually and incorrectly claiming he did his own stunts, and he takes great pleasure in loudly pointing out Thorncroft’s current failings to anyone who will listen.
Steve Coogan pops up as Peter Eastman, who once played Watson to Mindhorn’s Sherlock as his assistant Windjammer, but is now wildly successful, Windjammer having been spun off into its own series that just entered its 13th season. He only really appears in one scene where, hosting Thorncroft at his private members club, he makes him beg and grovel for a crumb from the king’s table in the form of Mindhorn being released on DVD. It’s brief but effective as Thorncroft is forced to confront his true place in the world and the exalted position of a man he once towered above.
The principal cast is rounded out by Richard McCabe, whose Geoffrey Moncrieff is arguably even more of a failure than Thorncroft, a PR agent who used to live the high life with the TV star he managed but is now an alcoholic who resides in a trailer in the middle of a field. The killer is played by Russell Tovey, whose Russell Melly is a Mindhorn super fan who insists on being called The Kestrel.
The problem is that these characters are far more memorable than the film itself, after Mindhorn has introduced them all, it doesn’t really know what to do, the classic problem of what would have been a fantastic bit in a sketch show being stretched out to 90 minutes. Eventually, it resorts to a plot that sometime feels dangerously close to an episode of Scooby Doo, complete with evil authority figures manipulating naive innocents and the whole thing being held together by unlikely coincidence.
The other major problem is Thorncroft himself, he’s thoroughly unlikable, a mysogynistic, deluded idiot who pissed away his fame through bad decisions and arrogance. Throughout, we’re simply laughing at him and there’s only so long that can be sustained, there’s no reason to root for him apart from his status as the protagonist and when the film eventually attempts a clumsy redemptive arc, it inevitably rings hollow.
It’s not all downhill after the strong opening, there are some lovely shots of the Isle of Man, so the tourist board will be happy, and the film’s clumsy conclusion features one last great scene. It revolves around the Manx day parade (a celebration of the national day of the Isle of Man) which features a variety of floats and local groups proceeding along the high street. Thorncroft/Mindhorn blunders into this bucolic bliss in hot pursuit of the baddies but the announcer assumes this is all part of the show and the deadly duel is narrated with all the emotional intensity of a Punch and Judy show.
It’s also worth sticking around after the credits, the music video for Richard Thorncroft’s 80s single You Can’t Handcuff the Wind is a fantastic parody of that era’s musical cliche, complete with smoke, dramatic shadows and seductive looks to camera.
Ultimately though, while it’s often very funny, there’s just too much wrong with Mindhorn to really recommend it, the main character is an asshole who doesn’t even remotely fit the heroic role designated for him, making it hard to have any real emotional attachment to what’s going on. While it does have and great performances and strong writing, these are undermined by a dull plot and a pervasive sense that between its strong opening and occasionally effective denouement, it’s making it up as it goes along, throwing stuff at the screen in the hope of getting a laugh. A great comedy film needs to do more than just make you laugh, it needs to to invest in its characters or be gripped by the plot, Mindhorn never gets close to either.