‘Mindcage’ Review: Martin Lawrence Thriller Gets Stuck in Its Own Logic Trap

Clichéd serial-killer tale aspires to follow in the footsteps of “Silence of the Lambs” and TV’s “Hannibal” but goes nowhere

Danielle Mathias/Lionsgate

There are tried and true tropes that grab hold of the viewer’s attention and don’t let up. An elaborately-staged crime scene? You have my attention. A rookie police officer paired with an old stand-by scarred from a case in his past? Definitely. Cops interviewing a locked-up serial killer for his thoughts on another murderer in their midst? Yes, please.

When jumbled together and dumped out like Scrabble letters, these formulas often build to something coherent if not compelling, except in the instance of “Mindcage.”

Directed by Mario Borrelli and written by Reggie Keyohara III (the two previously collaborated on “WarHunt”), “Mindcage” tells the story of cops Jake Doyle (Martin Lawrence, in his first dramatic role) and Mary Kelly (Melissa Roxburgh, “Manifest”) as they investigate elegantly-arranged murders of women sculpted and posed like angels in death.

These crimes would be bizarre and memorable in and of themselves, but they’re also replications — or homages, perhaps -– to a mysterious killer from Jake’s past, a man they’ve nicknamed “The Artist” (John Malkovich). The Artist isn’t particularly eager to help the cop who put him behind bars, but he’s willing to bargain for his sentence to be commuted; thus, the three strike a deal.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that “Mindcage” is trying to say something — anything — about the nature of killers or violence towards women or even God or organized religion. Though “Mindcage” gestures at all of these themes, it’s hardly interested in any of them as an actual concept. Is the killer after these women, the majority of them sex workers, because he believes they’re sinful by nature? Why does Jake keep a book on exorcisms in his glove box? And why is there an armed homeless man following Mary around? And what, if anything, does any of this have to do with Malkovich’s stoic and goofy “Artist,” who mostly sits around, etching and speaking in riddles.

As the heroes of our story, both Lawrence and Roxburgh are far out of their respective leagues. Though Lawrence is a worthy talent and memorable part of many of his films, he can’t commit to the tortured gravitas of Jake, who is underwritten and underdeveloped, his trauma shorthanded by showing him swallowing handfuls of white pills.

Roxburgh’s Mary, on the other hand, is a tougher nut to crack: She’s the dogged cop on the rise, always striving to prove she deserves better than her coworkers’ dismissive treatment. But she’s got an odd at-home boyfriend whose devout religion and eerie habits make him the film’s biggest red herring. It’s hard to believe she’s the cop she wants to be known as while the world’s most suspicious guy lives in her home.

“Mindcage” is rich with inane dialogue — the prison warden asks Mary if she has a medical degree, to which she snaps, “No, just a master’s in common sense.” — and ludicrous clues. At times, it almost feels as though Borrelli is going for a “Da Vinci Code”–type narrative, that all of the biblically-aligned signs and symbols will build up to something either profoundly divine or frighteningly unholy. The answer, despite the story’s numerous twists and turns, is unfortunately something altogether much dumber and unsatisfying. While there’s a fair amount of fun in trying to piece the film together, its mystery is far too over- and underwritten to summon a legitimate sense of satisfaction.

It doesn’t help that “Mindcage” suffers from its budget: poor production design, ugly lighting, haphazard editing. The vague hallucinatory sensation that comes from the lackluster moviemaking lends it a compelling disorientation that grows wearisome over its economical runtime. Though its characters are not particularly worth caring about nor the mystery at hand all that interesting — and Jake and Mary don’t seem to carry with them any compassion for the victims, treated as less than people by both cops and killer(s?) alike — “Mindcage” elicits plenty of unintended laughs. It’s a corny and unserious film, the perfect kind of VOD release that would make for a better drinking game than viewing experience.

If only “Mindcage,” like its caged Artist, could give into the sillier, dreamier aspects of life, go full-tilt into an abstract, loosely religious mania, then maybe it could strive to be the kind of camp crime-drama it often threatens to become. As it stands — or draws, maybe — “Mindcage” is committed to its own grim seriousness and maudlin melodramatics. It is an often nasty film, with little regard for anyone on screen, far more content to grasp for false depth rather than logic. It’s a shame there’s nothing to root for other than its dwindling runtime.

“Mindcage” opens in US theaters and on demand Dec. 16 via Lionsgate.