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(2000) (James Spader, Keanu Reeves) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: A burned-out FBI agent must find a serial killer who's toying with him by sending photos of his victims who will die within one day if the agent can't find them or him.
Joel Campbell (JAMES SPADER) is a burned-out FBI agent who's moved from Los Angeles to Chicago hoping to erase the psychological trauma and memories of his time spent hunting down psychotic killers. As such, he's seeing Dr. Polly Peilman (MARISA TOMEI), a young psychologist who's trying to help him work out his problems and relieve his migraine headaches and dependency on the prescription drugs that help get him from day to day.

When a young woman is murdered in his apartment building and he then finds that someone mailed her picture to him days before, Campbell suddenly realizes that a nemesis of his from the past, David Allen Griffin (KEANU REEVES), has apparently followed him to the windy city. It seems that Griffin's serial murder spree isn't enough for him, and thus he begins taunting Campbell by sending him photos of his future victims, informing the agent that he only has one day to save her.

With the help of detectives Hollis Mackey (CHRIS ELLIS) and Mitch Casper (ROBERT CICCHINI), Campbell then sets out to find and stop Griffin before he strikes again, all while realizing that the killer has sucked him into a manipulative game of cat and mouse.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Ever since Ed Gein decided it was time to redecorate his place with some new lampshades - made out of human skin, no less - people have been fascinated with serial killers and their homicidal sprees. Due to the built-in suspense, horror and conflict between them, their victims and the authority figures trying to stop them, such stories have always been good fodder for films, with Gein's escapades inspiring "Psycho" and plenty of other serial killer pictures.

Since "The Silence of the Lambs" took the genre to new heights and wowed over critics and audiences alike, there has been a plethora of such films. As a result, filmmakers have pretty much run the course of trying to make the killers, their crimes and/or the people after them different from all of the previous ones in some unique, cinematic fashion.

Thus, we've had serial killers who've used the seven deadly sins as their playbook and others where everything occurred only in their heads. Those who've pursued them have ranged from novice FBI agents to quadriplegic sleuths to those who've traveled into the heads of those killers. As such, the question of the day is whether all of the variants and combinations of killers, victims, killing styles and pursuers have been exhausted.

The answer, in Hollywood's mind at least, is apparently not. That's because this week's release of "The Watcher" revisits the genre, hoping to attract moviegoers with its unique spin on the subject matter. Its twist - beyond Keanu Reeves playing the psychopath and making one wonder if this could lead to "Bill & Ted's Excellent Murder Adventure" - is that the killer is pursuing the FBI agent who's pursing him, although those intentions aren't deadly, at least in the immediate physical sense.

Like any career cinematic villain, the bad guy here is bored with his crimes and needs a little stimulation, so how better to do that than by taunting the authority figure after him? I'm not so sure that's entirely a novel idea as it sounds rather familiar to other films from the past, although I can't think of any exact match at this particular moment.

Originality aside, that flip-flop variable does make for some fun moments, as first-time director Joe Charbanic and screenwriters David Elliot ("The Idea of Sex") and Clay Ayers (making his debut) give the viewer superior position throughout the film. We immediately know that Reeves is the killer and that he's obsessed with taunting his pursuer who doesn't even know what he looks like.

As such, the filmmakers goose the audience by allowing them to see the killer closing in not only on his victims, but also on James Spader's FBI agent character, even going so far as to having the two of them riding in the same elevator. It's an old cinematic technique, and while not of the shriek or "Look Out!" variety found in traditional horror films, it's still mostly effective for its "close call" nature.

Beyond that, the film doesn't vary that far from the standard serial killer formula. The killer has a specific M.O. - he sends the agent a photo of his next victim giving him a day to find her - while that burned-out, self doubting agent, who's still haunted by a past fatal mistake, must find them and/or stop the killer.

Charbanic keeps things moving at a decent clip and does manage to build some palatable suspense despite it being far too obvious who the killer's last victim will be. Unfortunately, the novice filmmaker is another of those former music video directors who's dragged along his visual bags of tricks and opens it far too often.

While quick cutting, slow motion, and any number of other visual techniques are commonly accepted in three minute videos, they're too distracting for feature films and don't do much but call undue attention to themselves. That's certainly the case here as once Charbanic gets things going, he then throws in some odd effect (such as the killer's point of view being represented by grainy footage) or a blaring rock soundtrack that disrupts and derails his efforts.

In addition, while cinematographer Michael Chapman's camera work keeps the film visually appealing, it pales in comparison to his previous, Oscar nominated effort of filming Chicago in "The Fugitive" where he visually emphasized the maze symbolism of the story with many aerial shots of the city and its architecture.

As far as the performances are concerned, the casting certainly isn't what one would normally expect for a film like this, particularly considering the role of the serial killer. While one has to admire Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix," "Speed") and his determination to throw all movie star caution to the wind, I never could quite get over him as that character. While he emotes the proper mix of charm and homicidal fury, and I've usually enjoyed a great deal of his work in the past, his performance didn't always bowl me over.

James Spader, the one-time hot property who appeared in films such as "Pretty in Pink" and "sex, lies and videotape" and then had a roller coaster career of hits and misses, is solid but unremarkable in the role of the disturbed and haunted FBI agent. Meanwhile, former Oscar winner Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny") isn't given the opportunity to do anything as either his psychologist or the killer's victim. Only Chris Ellis ("That Thing You Do," "October Sky") gets a moment to stand out as a detective who can continue a cell phone conversation while chasing a suspect on foot and in his car. Unfortunately, such fun characterization is only fleeting for him.

Overall, "The Watcher" itself is fairly easy to observe, but it's neither a great nor a horrible serial killer flick. While it has a few decent moments, some clever lines of dialogue and starts off decent enough, it turns into another mediocre film destined to be one of those movies you somewhat remember in years to come, but can't name by title. As such, we give, um, that film, you know, the one where Keanu Reeves plays a serial killer, a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 5, 2000 / Posted September 8, 2000

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