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The Bone Collector Review

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by Chris McEneany May 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Bone Collector Review
    Making its Blu-ray debut is this thriller from Dead Calm's Phillip Noyce, this time keeping his own feet dry whilst still keeping his cast drenched with the sweat of tension. Based on the book by Jeffery Deaver and adapted by Jeremy Iacone, Noyce's grim suspenser plays unquestionably along the template set up by The Silence Of The Lambs, but where many such derivates - you could call them copycats, much like the serial killers they chronicle - fumble their pilfered plots, this hard-edged, race-against-time detective-yarn knows its roots, happily acknowledges them and lets nothing get in the way of darkly entertaining the audience. Think Sherlock Holmes combined with Hitch's celebrated Rear Window and the atmosphere of crime-dissemination, lawful voyeurism for the greater good and clock-ticking vulnerability hit all the right notes.

    “What kind of vegetable would you like to be, Mr. Rhyme?”

    The irresistible set-up has Denzel Washington as ex-NY cop Lincoln Rhyme who, after being badly injured in the line of duty, is now a quadriplegic with only his brilliant mind to work with and the facilities of a beleaguered police department who turn to him when murders leave them baffled. A celebrated detective, author and expert in forensics, clue-gathering and crime solving, Rhyme is pitted against an uncannily smart and taunting serial killer striking repeatedly and with relentless savagery, a killer who seems to understand the very nature and tactics of those pursuing him and actively leads Rhyme on a wild goose chase of death, mutilation and fragments of the truth. This time, even his own awesome skills in the field won't be enough to help Rhyme solve the mystery and save the next victim. With the killer always a couple of steps ahead, he will need someone on the ground who can act as his eyes, ears, body and, most importantly, his instincts. And, for a bed-ridden detective with nothing but time on his hands and puzzles to keep him going, who better than Angelina Jolie's ex-model turned cop, Amelia Donaghy - a rookie with shrewd street-smart savvy and an already burgeoing forensic intuition that Rhyme knows he can hone and develop, someone he can trust and shape in his own talented image. And, together, the pair must navigate a labyrinth of grisly crime scenes - Rhyme in constant radio contact as Donaghy deciphers the modus operandi of the killer from the accoutrements and bloody victims that he leaves behind - battle police bureaucracy in the form of Michael Rooker's shady Capt. Cheney (Rooker, himself, no stranger to the darker obsessions of a sick mind, having notoriously essayed the title character in Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer), form a bond that will have them think as one analytical unit and keep Rhyme from succumbing to the depression that his unpredictable, and violent, seizures leave him on the precipitous edge of.

    The pitch is genre gold, and no mistake.

    In this particular avenue, crime definitely pays. Murder mysteries continually top the bestseller lists and box office charts, and there is nothing more galvanising and engrossing than the hunt for a serial killer, with audiences becoming white-knuckled detectives in their own right - provided that the story is done properly. The Bone Collector may be influenced by the literary might of Thomas Harris and very powerfully by the visuals and moods perfected in the likes of Se7en and the Hannibal Lector series, but Aussie director Philip Noyce is an adroit and intelligent filmmaker whose considerable skill for sending pulses racing and stringing together twisty-turny plots with devious aplomb has been keenly evidenced in his action-orientated fare such as Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger. Here, he keeps the tension hovering at the high water mark, successfully dropping hints and clues about the crimes, themselves, peppering proceedings with the odd red-herring or two - a great night-time visiting sequence at Amelia's apartment - and smoothly affecting the growing relationship between his leads, fed as it is by professional respect and admiration, mutual sympathy - Amelia lost her policeman father - and lacing enough shocks into the tapestry to please even those weaned on the genre. The film is often referred to as being gory, but Noyce is actually quite restrained when it comes to the body-carve-ups, his style one of edge-of-the-frame nastiness felt more by the reactions that we see on witnesses' faces than by any explicit bloodletting. But, having said that, The Bone Collector is, unmistakably, a dark and depraved movie, the violence very unsettling and the sheer non-discrimination of the killer when it comes to choosing his victims actually quite upsetting as we hurtle towards the final act, and the tone is one of almost continual dread. This tone, considering how slick and well-produced the film is, becomes one of its most rigid assets. It is not up there with Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs or Fincher's Se7en - what could be? - but Noyce and his rightly regaled DOP Dean (Mad Max 2) Semler create a frightening milieu out of New York's (actually Montreal, for much of the time, but we won't go into that) neon-stabbed shadows, bustling impersonality and anonymous, ever-present threat. Even the now-corny scene-transition shots of an aerial view looking down on the city streets and high-rises have a different feel to them - slightly more skewed than usual and stippled with a garish combination of darkness and throbbing neon.

    “Remember, crime scenes are three-dimensional ... floors, walls and ceilings.”

    Another great device is that, whilst Lincoln Rhyme is limited to one very strict location, Amelia is the gopher getting bounced around the city's less savoury niches. Much of the film seems to take place underground, or in horribly squalid, dank and festering rat-holes like old, disused slaughterhouses. Scenes of Amelia taking her lead from Rhyme's calm and methodical voice in her ear and virtually going it alone in some seriously dark and terrible places have a nerve-jangling frisson that cut through the relative safety of the senior detective's virtually hi-tech apartment like her own torch-beam slicing through the ghastly murk of a sadistic murder site. Yet, for all of this redolent atmosphere, Noyce's movie is most definitely not of the generic woman-in-peril vogue. Amelia may be scared and horrified by the things she confronts, but the film is at pains not to simply pull that time-worn cliché by showing her willingness to enter such intimidating places increase as the film progresses until, by the end, she is literally running from one hell-hole to another, duty-bound and determined.

    Naturally, with Jolie scampering about in her less-than-fetching forensic overalls, it is easy to assume that Washington is getting off lightly. But, without a doubt, the bulk of the acting chores have been dumped squarely at his immobile feet. Only able to move his head and one finger to operate his centrally-controlled gadgets, Washington has a tremendous job to do to convince us of Rhyme's incapacity and bursting brain-power. His dialogue, as always, is delivered with his trademark calculation, which is something that I normally rail against - but, here, it comes as part of a package that is severely restricted, therefore his vast intelligence and doggedness has to possess that weary, reluctant authority that Washington does so well. Rhyme is tired, wracked by the hell that his bodily imprisonment forces upon him and resolved to ending his own life when he feels he can no longer cope. Likewise, there is a curious love/hate thing that he has going on with the crime-solving. When his ex-partner, Ed (Married With Children) O'Neill's Paulie Sellitto comes calling with new dilemmas, it is only with severely mixed emotions that he will undertake to lend his assistence. His buddies on the Force - and he has quite a team of cop-boffins at his disposal - know that he can't resist a murderous mystery to solve, but dangling such a carrot before him also places him at the mercy of his blood pressure and the onset of the vicious seizures that ravage his body - any one of from which could be the thing that puts him into the dreaded vegetative state that he implores his devoted nurse, Thelma, played excellently by Queen Latifah, that he must not be allowed to endure. I like the way it seems as though he is playing Amelia like a puppet at first. “M.E. is all thumbs,” he tells her as he urges her to cut the hands off a recently barbecued corpse so that he can preserve any information that may reside on the metal cuffs binding them - a deed that she, very credibly, snubs. But the point is not that he can control her from afar, happy and safe in his detachment and somewhat surprising ability to flaunt the rulebook for standard procedures, but that he is actually “grooming” her for the things that will come. She may be his eyes and ears on the street, but he really views her as his apprentice and someone whose skills he sharpen so that she can carry on his good fight when he, finally, is unable to.

    Even with the excellent scene-sharing he does with Jolie, and the firm support the film gets from O'Neill, Mike McGlone and Leland Orser - I can't count Rooker because he is such a one-note actor, post-Henry, that I simply cannot abide his gruff, belligerent presence on-screen anymore, even though the role in question, like here, insists that he gruff and belligerent - it is abundently clear that Denzel Washington dominates. His determination to work through some vital clues, even though his body is shutting down and tears roll down his face is painfully wrougt about. His warm, yet piercing eyes reveal lots of idiosyncracies, fully convincing us that all manner of Holmsian clue-unravelling and evidence-linking is taking place on the inside. And if things take an inevitable slide into the frankly pantomimic come the violent finale, then, when all said and done, this is a man who is still resilient and adaptable no matter what comes his way.

    “My point is that destiny is what you make it. Whatever happened to your father doesn't mean it's going to happen to you.”

    With a powerful score from Craig Armstrong - densely texturing his music with seriously ominous tones and a swelling sense of innate helplessness - that is partly reminiscent of his work on Plunkett And Maclean, some terrific set-pieces and a creible bond between the two vital leads, it is perhaps inevitable that Noyce doesn't manage to quite hit the bullseye after the great set-up and rampant tension-building. The motivations may not be at all predictable, but the ultimate unmasking of the killer reveals somebody that will singularly fail to surprise. Noyce even makes a terrible split-second mistake in the middle act that fans of the genre, and of whodunnits generally, will spot a mile away and go “Aha ... it's you”, that so easily have been avoided, and there may be a couple of eye-rollingly lame developments during the frantically-paced climactic set-piece - but, on the whole, The Bone Collector is a finely-tuned thriller that pulls few punches and certainly grips right up until the end. When it came out theatrically, it was heavily touted as being a supreme offering of the form, and, as a result, I had feared its big name stars and high profile back-slapping would just be so much set-dressing on another sanitised disappointment. It is fair to say that the resulting film, when I first saw it on its DVD bow, was a refreshingly dark and clever drama that I have since grown very fond of over the years. It is far from perfect, yet it manages to tell a more-than-decent story and do so in a slightly unorthodox manner that can only be commendable. Plus, it is great to see Angelina Jolie in an early role where, for the first time, she comes to realise how she can control the camera of a big budget production whilst severely dressed-down.

    There are much better thrillers out there, but The Bone Collector still gets a strong 7 out of 10 from me.