Back in the roaring '20s, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were two young men who killed a 14-year-old boy not for revenge or because they were serial killers, but rather because they were intrigued by the challenge of committing the perfect crime simply to see if they could get away with it. Their actions, particularly considering their privileged backgrounds, shocked the nation and only the efforts of defense attorney Clarence Darrow saved them from execution.
Such a sensationalistic story - especially for back then - obviously didn't go unnoticed by Hollywood and the result was Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," the 1948 film best known for being comprised of one continuous shot (broken only to reload the film) from start to finish.
No such filmmaking achievement exists in "Murder By Numbers," yet another film - like 1959's "Compulsion" and 1992's "Swoon" - that takes some of its inspiration from the famous Leopold and Loeb case.
As directed by Barbet Schroeder ("Desperate Measures," "Reversal of Fortune") and written by Tony Gayton ("The Salton Sea"), the effort is appropriately titled as it's a cop-oriented murder mystery that pretty much follows the tried and true, step by step guidelines of making such a film.
In it, Sandra Bullock ("Miss Congeniality," "28 Days") plays the usual homicide detective with a troubled past - that still haunts her but remains a mystery to us for a while - who's constantly reprimanded by her boss -- R.D. Call ("Last Man Standing," "Waterworld") - who follows in a long line of such characters whose only purpose is to do just that.
Her desire to follow her hunches rather than usual detective work, along with her gender, makes her unpopular with her associates as she tries to solve a murder - with a green partner, natch, who quickly becomes proficient in that line of work, double natch - and prove that two high school students are responsible.
She doesn't have some sort of deranged revenge motive for being picked on during her school days, but rather - and this is where the Leopold and Loeb material comes into play - the students are the typically cool, charming and/or brilliant types that usually only exist and behave the way they do in movies. Perhaps that's why she decides they're not on the up and up, after all, when not working on the case or bedding that partner, she watches "Matlock" for inspiration.
Not surprisingly, the deeper she digs into the case, the more trouble she unearths and gets into, all of which eventually leads to the climatic, predictable and decidedly less than thrilling finale. If any or all of that sounds familiar, it's because you've probably seen it about a gazillion times before in similarly themed TV shows and movies, and neither the cast nor crew does anything unique or memorable with the material. The result is a bland dramatic "thriller" that's as instantly forgettable as it is boring.
The basic premise is okay, if obviously not novel, as the villains attempt to outsmart the heroine in what's supposedly to be a deadly chess game of cat and mouse. In reality, it's more like a game of checkers as little that's present is intricate, clever or imaginative as it needs to be to succeed and/or engage the viewer.
Like Leopold and Loeb, the two young killers here - decently played by Ryan Gosling ("Remember the Titans," TV's "Young Hercules") and Michael Pitt ("Finding Forrester," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") - have killed in the name of a fun, boredom and/or lack of parental involvement, and they think they've committed the perfect murder. Methinks they - and the filmmakers - watched too many homicide detective TV shows as their various tactics seem recycled, clichéd and certainly not as clever or innovative enough to work and/or impress viewers.
The bigger problem is that the filmmakers don't make the "did they or didn't they commit the crime" aspect hazy enough. Since it doesn't take much to ascertain that the boys did it (particularly since they and the filmmakers keep informing us of that), that leaves the film only one option. That's to have the opposing forces get into a game of mental chess where one tries to prove the others did it while they try to prevent that however they can. That can often make for a compelling psychological drama and/or thriller if done just right (think of "The Silence of the Lambs"), but that's not the case here.
While the material regarding them isn't anything worth writing home about - including the clichéd ending where one of the suspect's manner of behaving is reversed in an unbelievable fashion - at least it's far better than the other half of the story focusing on the troubled detective.
Beyond the usual and now tired detective characteristics, there's the whole "mystery" element of why the protagonist gets so upset upon receiving a request to appear at a probation hearing. Since we hear audio flashbacks to some pivotal event from the past, we know she's involved, and the mystery of what that is and how it relates to the present day plot is supposed to keep us intrigued. Unfortunately, it really has no immediate relation to the story at hand beyond some character exposition, and its eventual revelation isn't worth the wait.
A big part of the problem is with Bullock playing the protagonist. While she's good in the right sort of role, this isn't one of them either from a written or performance standpoint. She's simply never believable in the part that consists entirely of clichéd and contrived elements that have been explored many times before and in far better fashions. Had she not been one of the film's producers, it would have been wise for Schroeder to jettison all of her character's past and focus more on the boys and their story, but that's not the case.
Not surprisingly, her character is coupled with a novice partner -- another tired convention not helped by the bland performance in the role by Ben Chaplin ("Birthday Girl," "Lost Souls") - but neither the professional nor romantic/sexual part of their relationship sets off any sparks. On the younger side, Agnes Bruckner ("The Glass House," TV's "The Bold and the Beautiful") is present as something of a romantic interest and/or rival for the two boys, but she can't do much in the part either.
Along with all of those problems, the film is also plagued with various instances of illogical or unbelievable material, such as characters spouting dialogue they normally wouldn't obviously just to keep the viewer in the loop as far as character attributes and plot developments are concerned (as if we couldn't figure them out on our own) and the green rookie suddenly leading the homicide case when his superior is removed from it.
Back when he was with The Police, Sting sang, "It's murder by numbers, 1, 2, 3. It's as easy to learn as your ABC." Apparently, the same holds true for making this sort of murder mystery film, particularly when little or no imagination is required or added into the mix. About on par with any mediocre episode of most any TV show featuring a homicide detective, "Murder By Numbers" rates as just a 4 out of 10.