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by: Michael Dequina

There is a germ of an interesting idea buried in The Watcher, but any chance of that idea developing into the basis of an intelligent thriller was completely obliterated when the thought of stunt casting entered the picture. So instead of an engrossing psychological chiller, we get a fairly pro forma serial killer pursuit pic where the madman is played by... Keanu Reeves. Any wonder why not a single scare nor suspenseful moment is to be experienced in this amazingly anemic film?

The potentially interesting idea lost in the muck is the exploration of the strange symbiotic relationship between a killer and his pursuer. In The Watcher, the killer is Reeves' David Allen Griffin, who stalks his young female prey before strangling them with a piano wire; the pursuer is Joel Campbell (James Spader), an FBI profiler who worked on the Griffin case during his initial killing spree in Los Angeles. Burned out after working that case--without ever capturing Griffin--Campbell has since left the bureau and the City of Angels, living a layabout life in Chicago that is perked up only by non-stop intake of prescription drugs and frequent visits to his shrink, Polly (Marisa Tomei, struggling to get back on the studio A-list in a thankless role). But it isn't long before Griffin turns up in the Windy City, prodding Campbell into a cat-and-mouse game that brings him back to the Fed fold.

I get the impression that the story as originally conceived by Darcy Meyers and David Elliot was less about catching the killer--which is what the finished The Watcher ostensibly is, a routine genre exercise--than about something more interesting: that being how lawmen become defined by the perps they track, and vice versa. But any probing psychological dimension to this story is drowned out by Joe Charbanic's overdirection. Heavy on the quick edits and stylized visuals, it comes as no surprise that Charbanic is another music video vet making the big leap to the feature film world. While flashiness has its place on the big screen, the seems strangely out of place in a film whose content suggests something darker and grittier (further exemplified by Spader and Tomei's sullenly earnest performances); the gloss makes the film that much more difficult to believe.

Ultimately nudging The Watcher from "difficult to believe" to "impossible to believe" is the ruinous presence of Reeves. Charbanic directed videos for Reeves' band Dogstar, and I'd like to think it's that connection--and studio execs' taste for stunt casting--is what led to this stunning example of miscasting. It is inconceivable that anyone could sincerely believe that he of the affectless voice, erratic speech rhythms, blank face, and bobbing head could convincingly convey any sense of evil or menace, and Reeves' performance just confirms how limited his range is. His Griffin is serial killer as laid-back surfer dude, and never once do we believe someone this incredibly goofy could have evaded the authorities this long. Whenever Reeves shows up, any level of believability that the film has managed to generate (mostly courtesy of Spader) goes rocketing out the window.

And, unfortunately, Reeves shows up quite frequently in The Watcher, and Charbanic and the rest of the crew fail to compensate with the pedestrian, suspenseless plot twists, which lumber toward a most unsatisfying climax. As such, the only fright likely to be experienced by moviegoers is the fact that they spent hard-earned money on such a turkey.

RATING: * (out of *****)


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