Movie Review: Reporter infiltrates Jihadist recruiting via her online “Profile”

More interesting as another technical exercise in “making a movie look like your Facebook page,” “Profile” comes to screens too late to catch “ISIS Fever,” too obvious to quite come off.

I mean, if the average viewer sees things the cunning, media-savvy, nimble-fingered millennial reporter-heroine played by Valene Kane (TV’s “Gangs of London”) should see coming a mile off, the whole enterprise is undercut and fairly early on.

We “see” Amy hurriedly assembling an online identity, life and fake “profile” for a story her editor (Christine Adams, uncannily nerve-wracking) is riding her to report yesterday, if not before. It’s 2014 London, and the word wants to know why young women from all over Europe are flocking to Syria and becoming ISIS recruits, wives, concubines and/or suicide bombers.

How to report it? Lure a recruiter, engage with him in messages and Skype chats, teasing out the process of online “seduction” that ends with recruits stepping off a plane in Istanbul and into the violent, psychotic patriarchy of the Islamic State.

Amy reinvents herself as “Melody” and multi-tasks like a maniac, Youtube Hijab-wearing and “How to make yourself younger” makeup tutorials, Googling “How to make someone fall in love with you” and flipping from screen to screen, power-watching jihadist beheading videos and cutesy ISIS recruiting memes involving kittens and babies and toddlers posed with grenades, AK-47s and that omnipresent Islamic State black flag.

She’s in her mid-20s and trying to pass for 19-20, because IS fighters/martyrs like them young, virginal and gullible.

And within moments, she’s posted the right picture and shared the right memes and videos and Abu Bilel Al-Britani, a Syrian fighter/true believer and recruiter has hit her with a “Salaam alaikum, my sister.”

Juggling screens and hastily donning a hijab, she covers a death’s skull tattoo on her finger (“It’s haram (forbidden in Islam)” she’s reminded by tech guy Lou (Amir Rahimzadeh), who is hastily coaching her through recording Skype chats for her story.

Because Bilel, whose “Al-Britani” gives away his jihadi origins as surely as his accent, is on screen and giving her the full-court press in a heartbeat. He’s a bearded 20something hunk played by Shazad Latif (“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) with the swagger of youth and the confidence of knowing “recent convert to Islam” and “young female” should make Melody putty in his hands.

He bowls her over with videos, braggadocio over his combat experience and insistent questions, pleas and demands. Amy isn’t the age she’s saying Melody is, so she plays along, slowing his roll with her own questions and when doubt, fear, overeagerness or technical problems and interruptions kick in, she disconnects “by accident.”

She catches her breath, deals with boyfriend/realtor Matt (Morgan Watkins) who checks in via Facebook messenger, Skype or what have you updating her on the apartment they’re to move into together.

Matt is over-organized, has the math of their living arrangement worked out to the penny, propping the freelance reporter up until she can win a job at the media organization she’s risking her neck for with this story.

She creates Melody with cheats — cutting and pasting other “why I converted” narratives she finds online, “friending” lots of people she finds with the right names and profiles to suit her new persona.

It’s this manic, real-time, type-type-Skype opening act that is the best thing in “Profile,” getting at the pressure a young person in the “gig economy” feels, journalistic shortcuts, the bum’s rush Bilel is plainly giving her, urging her to “come,” professing “paradise” and promising “marriage” in a mad dash to close the deal.

Amy/Melody sees what we see and hears what we hear. She’s read the “recruiting playbook” that others have exposed online, how IS recruiters work their magic. And yet she softens towards this good-looking, committed and confident young thug who promises her a life that square Matt can’t hope to approach.

Every interaction is fraught with danger and urgency, and as little journalistic tricks enter the conversation — probing his real identity, his real job with IS, his own journey from unhappiness to radicalism — she puts off her editor and Matt and everybody else, dragging out the reporting, almost as if she’s giving this bargain some serious consideration.

The energy in Timur Bekmambetov’s latest thriller — he did “Night Watch,””Wanted,” the “Ben Hur” remake, and produced the similar online thriller “Unfriended” — dissapates almost by default after that heady first act.

Amy is still frazzled and balancing several things at once in every chat. But as the days and chats go on, could she really be falling for psycho-Lothario’s line after seeing and hearing and reading him in that first, pushy conversation? After seeing his friends murder people on camera?

“Profile,” shot in 2018, also feels dated — not in the tech sense, but in the geopolitical one. Who talks about IS any more? The hundreds of jaded, lost Westerners who flocked to Syria almost a decade ago are cultural punchlines now, those who weren’t beheaded by their overlords or arrested when they tried to come home.

Still, Bekmambetov, working from a true story in a book by Anna Érelle, expands the possibilities of what we can do in creating suspense via simple exchanged messages and Skype conversations that need to hide as much as they reveal. Amy’s mad online multi-tasking will make most viewers feel old and slow, or that an attention span is a terrible thing to waste.

Remember that John Cho thriller about a man tracking his missing daughter down via her social media history, “Searching?” This is like that, until the energy fades and the journalistic credibility slips into “women reporters, always falling for the evilest guy” stereotypes.

Like that ever happens.

MPA Rating: R for language throughout and some disturbing images 

Cast: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Morgan Watkins, Amir Rahimzadeh

Credits: Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, script by Britt Poulton, Olga Kharina and Timur Bekmambetov, based on the book by Anna Érelle A Focus Features release.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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