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Dustin's Review
The Watcher (2000)
2 Stars

Directed byJoe Charbanic
Cast: James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei, Chris Ellis, Ernie Hudson.
2000 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 9, 2000.

There have been so many films made in the Serial Killer genre that, more often than not, they rely on a sole gimmick to set them apart from the crowd. When a movie of this sort attempts to create genuine characters and situations, and acquire innovative approaches to its story, as in 1986's stark "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" or 1991's Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs," it comes as a startling change of pace. On the one hand, Joe Charbanic's "The Watcher" falls into the former category--that is, it's one hope for success falls on the idea of the villain holding up a peculiarly close relationship with the troubled investigator on the case. The picture is rarely ever original, and first-time feature film director Joe Charbanic uses too much flash and not enough substance to convey his ideas.

However, the movie does hold a few unpredictably intriguing notions, and successfully creates a palpable level of suspense. With both positive qualities and negative downfalls consistently weighing from both sides, the fate of "The Watcher" falls on how satisfying the venture is once everything is said and done. Ultimately, the film begins to unravel during its climax, and the disappointing ending leaves you asking what exactly the point was. It also puts in place the final nail in its at-once-promising coffin.

Detective Campbell (James Spader), a troubled man suffering from migraine headaches and a barbituate dependency, has recently relocated to Chicago from Los Angeles to get away from his unfortunate past. At the same time, murders of young women begin to plague the area, and it soon becomes apparent that they are the work of Griffin (Keanu Reeves), a serial killer from Campbell's previous case in L.A. who has followed him to his new surroundings to haunt him once more. The hook is that Campbell begins to receive individual pictures of anonymous women in the mail, and is given exactly twenty-four hours to locate the potential victim before Griffin ends their life. It seems Griffin gains pleasure in forming relationships with the top investigators on his case, and although he doesn't know it yet, so does Campbell, whose obscure past is linked to the killer.

As far as movies in the recent Serial Killer genre go, "The Watcher" is a step above the tiresome likes of 1997's "Kiss the Girls" and 1999's "The Bone Collector," but inferior to 1995's "Se7en" and "Copycat." While getting off to a rocky start that doesn't seem to be going anywhere, when the cat-and-mouse games begin between Griffin and Campbell at the thirty-minute mark, the film is reinvigorated with a level of much-needed tension and fast pacing. Unfortunately, as with most thrillers of this sort, the outcome can be easily telegraphed in advance and its novel twist inevitably resorts by its conclusion into a cliched fight to the finish between the protagonist and antagonist.

The cast is talented all the way around, but nonetheless give a mixed bag of performances. James Spader (1997's "Crash") is in fine form as the afflicted hero, Campbell, and is effective in transmitting his character's confusion to why, exactly, he feels such a strong connection to his enemy. Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves (1999's "The Matrix") plays against-type as the cold-blooded murderer. Reeves isn't bad in the role, but Griffin's motivations are never clearly identified, and he occasionally has trouble acting menacing. The once-successful Marisa Tomei (1992's "My Cousin Vinny"), as Campbell's psychiatrist Polly, has recently fallen on hard times, and is handed here an underdeveloped character who has little purpose other than becoming one of Griffin's targets. Tomei simply looks bored in the part, and understandably so.

The one thought-provoking idea that screenwriters David Elliot and Clay Ayers do form is that, in your everyday life, you come into contact with a large amount of people, but most take interaction for granted and rarely ever notice those around them. Throughout, Campbell comes into very close proximity with Griffin (at one point, they share an elevator together), but as is common in human nature, Campbell never notices.

Complete with a memorable blend of current heavy metal and pop music, as well as annoyingly artsy photography that includes slow-motion and grainy video footage, "The Watcher" is a film that comes thisclose to overcoming its problems and succeeding as a thriller, but doesn't quite make it. The climax simply does not hold the amount of care required to end on a satisfying note. It leaves the viewer with a feeling of distaste and wasted time, rather than of pleasure and time well spent.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman