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Kazakhstan’s biggest Hollywood export, after Borat, has got to be Timur Bekmambetov. The director-producer got his visa stamp with the head-turning Russian horror fantasy Night Watch, then traveled Stateside with a series of gluttonous popcorn binges — sensorial assaults dripping with genre excess. A scowling Angelina Jolie at her leanest and meanest made the shoot-’em-up exploding viscera of Wanted almost fun. But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Ben-Hur became increasingly less so, with dramatic texture in the latter largely overlooked en route to the chariot race.
The commercial derailment of that costly, critically savaged 2016 release might conceivably have prompted a chastened, downsized detour into serious-minded territory. But let’s face it, the odds were never great that Bekmambetov was going to pull off a U-turn into issues-driven material with something meaningful to say about an alarming contemporary reality. Which brings us to the online thriller Profile, in which a staggeringly reckless British journalist goes undercover as a radicalized Muslim convert, getting sucked into a risible melodrama in which the boundaries separating her real life from her fake Jihadi-bait persona blur beyond recognition.
Bekmambetov has been experimenting in recent years as a producer of films that unfold on digital interfaces, starting with the 2015 Skype-stalker horror movie Unfriended, and continuing with this year’s child-abduction thriller Searching, which debuted to strong response at Sundance. In terms of sustaining a narrative using only FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, video downloads and various other web pages and social media platforms, Profile is quite impressive up to a point. In terms of coherent plotting and plausibility, not so much. That means that as the storytelling falls apart, the online framework devolves into a labored tech gimmick, and a visually tiresome one at that. (This is the rare feature without a credited director of photography.)
Scripted by Brittany Poulton with Bekmambetov and fellow producer Olga Kharina, the film is based on French journalist Anna Erelle’s memoir, In the Skin of the Jihadist. Onscreen text explains that by 2014, hundreds of young women had left Europe to join ISIS, many of their journeys beginning on social media. But slapping “Based on a True Story” on the credits can only win you so much credence when your protagonist goes from quick-thinking navigator of ever-multiplying screen windows to swooning romantic dupe in a heartbeat.
The setup is actually quite tense and compelling, even if the breathless urgency and scant evidence of advance planning that 30-ish London freelance journalist Amy Whittaker (Valene Kane) brings to her assignment are early warnings she’s headed for trouble.
Struggling to make a living, she pitches a story to Vick (Christine Adams), her editor at an unnamed TV news outlet, on vulnerable young women being lured to Syria with the promise of finding fresh purpose in their disenchanted lives. Within what appears to be minutes, she has chosen a new name, Melody Nelson, created a Facebook profile and done online tutorials on how to wear a hijab and use makeup tricks to appear younger. She also quickly likes a bunch of Islamic extremist posts and links a few beheading videos to support her claim of recent radicalized Muslim conversion.
All this while dealing with rent reminders, dodging messages from her needy friend Kathy (Emma Cater) and looking at possible flats with her boyfriend Matt (Morgan Watkins), who’s eager for them to move in together. Amy works her keyboard with the nimble fingers of a card shark.
Almost instantly, a hot beardy type identifying himself as Bilel (Shazad Latif) contacts her, pleased that she liked his video. Neutralizing any potential menace with LOLs, emojis and cute cat GIFs, he suggests a Skype chat. Vick barely has time to get her IT guy Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh) to set up the necessary protections before “Melody” is connected with Bilel, a Kalashnikov-wielding Londoner from a Pakistani family, who burned his British passport upon arrival in Syria and has never looked back. While he provides only sketchy ideological backup to his assertion of being on a noble mission, he uses video of a drone strike blowing up small children in Aleppo as evidence that it’s not his side who are the evildoers.
What follows is basically a two-way cat-and-mouse game — Amy/Melody fishes for the recruitment and travel specifics that will give her story substance as Bilel probes for personal information while reeling her in. The problem is that the script has Amy go from savvy and cautious to hopelessly gullible in no time at all. A degree of ambiguity remains as to whether she’s playing along or seriously falling for Bilel’s dangerous charms. But when she starts fluttering over his promises of marriage and a life of luxury in paradise, while bristling over Matt calling her “baby,” she begins to seem truly lost. The exchange of sad stories about their respective mothers seals the deal. Or at least that’s what we’re meant to believe.
Bekmambetov and his co-writers lose sight of the authentic human drama of naive young women being preyed upon by a frighteningly well-organized network of recruiters. Instead, the film becomes a contrived melodrama about the collision between clear-headed intelligence and romantic delusion as Amy wrestles with her growing emotional attachment to the stranger on her computer screen. Her steady sacrifice of good judgment for impulsive action becomes impossible to swallow when she dutifully follows instructions and sets off to an Amsterdam hotel ominously named Birdcage. Why not Girltrap?
In the meantime, the inevitable disintegration of her relationship with Matt happens with routine predictability; Vick reveals herself to be the most unethical and careless of editors; and Lou, after playing a crucial role in the early stages, gets forgotten for most of the movie.
Kane does her best to play her part with conviction, though it’s a tough battle, particularly when a panicked Amy still finds the mental bandwidth to duck into her iTunes library during anxious moments and choose mood-appropriate music. Latif is a charismatic screen presence, illustrating the effectiveness of flirtation and masculine confidence in setting fatal traps. But this is a silly movie that fails to justify its self-seriousness, inadvertently trivializing a very real phenomenon. That will make it probably offensive to any parent who ever lost a child to the web of ISIS, Al-Qaeda or any other radical extremist group.
Production company: Bazelevs Entertainment
Cast: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Morgan Watkins, Emma Cater
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenwriter: Brittany Poulton, Timur Bekmambetov, Olga Kharina, based on Anna Erelle’s memoir In the Skin of the Jihadist
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Olga Kharina
Executive producers: Adam Sidman, Rick Sobalvarro, Igor Tsay, Maria Zatulovskaya
Production designer: Ben Smith
Costume designer: Varya Avdyushko
Editor: Andrey Shugaev
Casting: John McAlary
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Endeavor Content
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