Actors are always worried about type casting. Becoming inextricably identified with a single role can make your career… or it can leave you out in the cold once the public loses interest and can’t separate you from that role. In Netflix‘s Mindhorn, a faded British actor best known for playing a ridiculous TV cop is lodged firmly in the latter camp, until an unhinged fan forces him back into the role—and into the thick of a real-life criminal conspiracy.
Mindhorn stars Julian Barratt as actor Richard Thorncroft. Back in the ‘80s, he played the titular TV detective, a cop who loses an eye and has it replaced with a bionic implant that can detect whether someone is telling the truth. It’s the sort of goofy, high-concept notion that the Reagan-era TV landscape was chockablock with, but not even nostalgia can save Thorncroft from the indignity of a career that has taken a nosedive. He’s stuck doing orthopedic sock commercials and dreaming of his glory days when a very unusual offer comes his way. There’s a murderer loose on the Isle of Man—the place where Thorncroft’s show, Mindhorn, was shot back in the day. The killer is threatening further violence unless he can talk to Mindhorn himself, and unfortunately “the Kestrel” doesn’t seem to understand that Mindhorn was just a show.
Mindhorn was co-written by Barratt and Simon Farnaby, both veterans of the utterly peculiar British comedy troupe, the Mighty Boosh. Fans of the Boosh will find plenty to love here, but Mindhorn is a solid, silly romp that offers steady laughs and plenty of cringe-inducing awkward moments in the style of The Office. Barratt is perfect as the past-his-prime action hero who’s still in denial about his own irrelevance, and most the first half is spent exploring just how thoroughly Thorncroft’s ego has destroyed any goodwill the world might once have held for him. As he pokes about his old stomping grounds on the Isle of Man, pretty much every indignity and humiliation one could suffer Thorncroft checks off his bucket list. Watching him squirm while still trying to maintain his own vanity is a true delight.
Barratt is ably backed by a strong supporting cast, including an A-list cameo that makes for one of the best scenes in the film. (“I love your balls!”) Thorncroft’s ongoing humiliation is thrown into even starker relief by the fact that his former co-star, Pete Eastman (Steve Coogan), has become a huge star thanks to a spinoff that continued long after Mindhorn was canceled. The film also manages to squeeze some genuine heart into the story, thanks to the ex Thorncroft is determined to win back (Essie Davis), and the lunatic who lures him to the island in the first place, and who proves not to be at all what he first appears (Russel Tovey). Simon Farnaby is also a hoot as Thorncroft’s former Mindhorn stuntman, Clive, whose success at life just twists the knife in Thorncroft’s belly all the more.
Part of the fun is just how well Mindhorn, under the steady hand of director Sean Foley, nails the look and feel of the ‘80s TV shows it’s satirizing, from the cheap, clunky merchandise to the opening promo reel exploring the show’s heyday (complete with VHS tracking lines). Anyone with a lingering fondness for campy ‘80s classics like MacGyver or Knight Rider will likely find Mindhorn right up their alley.
Once Mindhorn starts to uncover what’s really afoot on the Isle of Man, the story doesn’t take too many surprising turns. But it doesn’t have to. The joy of Mindhorn is in watching a thoroughly unqualified man thrown into situations he used to pretend to be able to handle with aplomb. By the time Thorncroft is trying to take down the baddies while glued into a truly horrific wig, Mindhorn has already proven to be an instant classic—and that’s no lie.