Henry Cavill’s a super policeman in new film Night Hunter

Period pieces and a high-profile turn as Clark Kent have kept the Superman star busy, and now he gets to do some detective work. He does well in the real world

Is Henry Cavill out of time? I don’t mean to suggest the strapping 36-year-old is not long for this world, or that his post-Superman career is in an unrecoverable tailspin. It’s just that this big, beautiful English beefcake has forever been plugged into period pieces, as if being exposed to wifi might be his Kryptonite. The frisky 16th-century drama The Tudors was Cavill’s TV breakout. Before that, he and his chiselled chin-dimple had featured as handsome window dressing in would-be epics like The Count Of Monte Cristo and Tristan & Isolde. His first headlining movie role was as Minotaur-wrangling Theseus in The Immortals, just before he donned the Man Of Steel cape to play another hero who harks back to a different age. Until the most recent Mission: Impossible, it felt like the only way to see Cavill holding a mobile phone would require checking out his spectacular gym selfies on Instagram.

Which brings us to Night Hunter, a chilly serial killer tale that belatedly lets Cavill do the sort of modern-day thriller things that would be the earliest rite of passage for most other 21st-century actors. Can you really call yourself a Hollywood leading man if you haven’t strapped on a bulky tactical vest and busted into a warehouse hefting an AR-15? Or stalked alone through a darkened murder basement nervously holding a penlight up alongside your handgun to see what twisted horrors lurk within?

Night Hunter lets Cavill finally enact both of those familiar tropes and more. He plays Marshall, a dedicated but divorced homicide cop working the serial killer beat in snowbound Minnesota. (Less obvious is why he has an English accent, perpetually mussed-up hair and a wardrobe full of raggedy fisherman’s jumpers.) This is the sort of movie that wisely assumes you’ve seen a lot of these sorts of movies, barrelling through the usual plot points in order to pile up the twists. At first glance Marshall seems to be pitted against a scarily focused vigilante (Ben Kingsley) who lures paedophiles into honey traps with the help of an unexpected accomplice. But out there in the darkness there is an even greater menace targeting women, a wicked threat that requires a highly unconventional team-up to take down.

Night Hunter is a movie full of familiar archetypes. As well as Cavill’s obsessed detective and Kingsley on flinty autopilot, there is True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario as a young profiler with something to prove, Stanley Tucci as a tetchy, eye-rolling boss and the less familiar but very creepy Brendan Fletcher as the blubbering prime suspect who – cliché klaxon – might have some kind of multiple-personality disorder. But writer-director David Raymond keeps things fleet-footed enough to subvert the most obvious audience predictions and some extended scenes in the benighted Minnesota wilderness add enough moody atmosphere to elevate the entire enterprise. Night Hunter is the sort of nominally gritty but essentially pulpy thriller that studios simply don’t seem to make any more (or if they do, it’s on such a low budget that there is very little stardust to sprinkle among the cast list). Taken on its own terms, it offers a superior couch-and-pizza experience, so it feels like a bonus that it’s simultaneously available on video on-demand.

Might it lead to Cavill finally establishing himself as a more contemporary leading man? Well, next up he’s an ashen-haired mutant in Netflix’s medieval fantasy series The Witcher: all chainmail, leather britches and enchanted amulets. But on this solid showing, he deserves to fill out an FBI windbreaker someday, or at least have some volcanic superior demand he surrenders his badge and gun.

Night Hunter is out now in cinemas and on VOD