The obvious difficulties in making an action thriller out of Jeffery Deaver's best-selling fiction "The Bone Collector" --which pivots on a paralyzed protagonist's solving a serial murder case while bedridden --aren't entirely surmounted in Phillip Noyce's glossy adaptation. While Denzel Washington delivers a convincing central turn, suspense is inevitably somewhat compromised by protag's physical stasis; perhaps more serious flaws, however, lie in Angelina Jolie's credulity-straining role and a narrative that keeps the killer's identity and motives unknown until a hyperbolic, contrived climax.

The obvious difficulties in making an action thriller out of Jeffery Deaver’s best-selling fiction “The Bone Collector” –which pivots on a paralyzed protagonist’s solving a serial murder case while bedridden –aren’t entirely surmounted in Phillip Noyce’s glossy adaptation. While Denzel Washington delivers a convincing central turn, suspense is inevitably somewhat compromised by protag’s physical stasis; perhaps more serious flaws, however, lie in Angelina Jolie’s credulity-straining role and a narrative that keeps the killer’s identity and motives unknown until a hyperbolic, contrived climax. Entertaining but never fully engrossing, this Universal-Columbia co-production — which preemed in Montreal, where Manhattan-set story was primarily shot — looks likely to post midrange b.o. when it rolls out Stateside on Nov. 5.

Opening seg reveals the accident that left brilliant NYPD criminologist Lincoln Rhyme (Washington) paralyzed below the shoulders, save one finger — falling debris crushed him while locating a slain cop in the subway system’s bowels. Waking once again from this grim recall four years later (though that time passage isn’t made very clear), Rhyme passes days in unhappy retirement, tended by omnipresent nurse Thelma (Queen Latifah) and occasional visits from medical technician Richard (Leland Orser). He’s privately asked a physician friend to arrange his “final transition,” i.e. suicide — he dreads surviving as a “vegetable” once recurrent seizures from spinal-fluid buildup wreak their cumulative, and seemingly inevitable, effect.

But Rhyme’s former partner, Det. Sellitto (Ed O’Neill), thinks only his uncanny deduction skills can help in finding a multimillionaire and his wife who disappeared after entering an airport taxi the day before. Patrol cop Amelia Donaghy (Jolie) discovers the man’s corpse buried beneath subway tracks, with a hand (including one skinned-to-the-bone finger) protruding upward–and it’s her quick thinking that preserves clues purposely left behind from being decimated by a passing Amtrak train and falling rain.

The kidnapped woman is presumed still alive; but as we learn well before the authorities do, she’s in immediate jeopardy, manacled by the ski-masked slayer in another underground city site. Scanning the clues Donaghy had photographed on his elaborate home computer apparati, Rhyme is able to pinpoint a likely hostage location. But Sellitto, younger Det. Solomon (Mike McGlone) and Donaghy arrive at the scene too late to save the woman from her grisly fate, being scalded to death by a point-blank steam pipe’s timed emission.

Story throws out its major barrier to credibility at this early point, as Rhyme–who puts no stock in the capability of his departmental nemesis, Chief of Crime Scenes Howard Cheney (a glowering Michael Rooker)–insists beat cop Donaghy be the first to investigate this and later crime scenes, alone. We’re meant to buy that he perceives a “natural ability” in her (the de rigeur romantic attraction comes later). But notion that he’d forgo any other trusted fellow detectives, bend rules and enrage Cheney to use this completely inexperienced–not to mention extremely discomfited– officer as his eyes and ears, handling all-important evidence, strains viewer belief to a serious degree. Jolie’s glam looks (it’s duly explained later that character is an ex-model) further underline the contrivance, though the rising thesp (“Gia,” “Playing by Heart”) tries her level best to put the role across.

Abduction of a young male who’d hailed the murderous cab driver — then, later, an elderly man and grandchild — further suggest that Rhyme & Co. are being cat-and-moused; clues eventually point toward the assailant’s recreation of crimes from the turn of the century, in the same location. Cheney forcibly takes over the investigation. But Donaghy–by now willingly attuned to the hunt–risks her career with additional sleuthing. She realizes in the last lap that Rhyme himself may be endangered.

Hitherto mercifully restrained in its depictions despite the grotesque nature of two first murders, pic orchestrates a bloody climactic confrontation in hero’s spacious loft apartment. The action is pulse-quickening, but payoff suffers from the weakness of killer’s proffered explanation –which comes out of left field, and reveals little satisfying reason for the choice of victims or violent methods. Coda ignores Rhyme’s prior fears and suicidal intent to provide a cliched uptempo fade.

Presumably, Deaver’s novel compensated for narrative faults via character depth, particularly in Rhyme’s p.o.v. as a man whose high intelligence hasn’t made his disability any easier to cope with. Washington has no trouble convincing us on either level; denied the usual range of physical role expression, he compellingly anchors the film nonetheless. But Jeremy Iacone’s (“One Tough Cop”) screenplay doesn’t provide much in the way of character backstory, or deep relationships, to fully articulate immobilized protag’s human dimension. More poignancy should be mined from his isolation, since dutiful Thelma (who never seems to go home; too bad Latifah seldom gets anything more than silent reaction shots) appears his sole significant companion by choice. It’s not Jolie’s fault that the late-breaking romance comes off as all-too-convenient and formulaic.

Subsidary roles are well-cast, with Luis Guzman contributing some comic relief as an antic forensics specialist. Helmer Noyce is on familiar turf with another mainstream suspenser; confident pacing, subterranean atmospherics and a few false scares maintain middling tension, but pic’s smooth handling doesn’t really get under the skin in the manner of some other recent serial-killer thrillers.

Production values are high-grade. Dean Semler’s widescreen lensing keeps things as fluid as possible during the apartment-bound scenes, often filling transitions with handsome NYC aerial views. There’s a notable trick shot that fakes a reverse speed zoom over great distances. Other major contributions, including Craig Armstrong’s moody score, are effective if conventional.

The Bone Collector

Production

A Univeral release of a Universal Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation of a Bregman production. Produced by Martin Bregman, Louis A. Stroller, Michael Bregman. Executive producers, Michael Klawitter, Dan Jinks. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Screenplay, Jeremy Iacone, based on the novel by Jeffery Deaver.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Dean Semler; editor, William Hoy; music, Craig Armstrong; production designer, Nigel Phelps; supervising art directors, Claude Pare (Montreal), Jeff Sage (N.Y.); set decorators, Marie-Claude Gosselin (Montreal), Harriet Zucker (N.Y.); costume designer, Odette Gadoury; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Simon Kaye; associate producer, Bo Dietl; assistant director, Noga Isackson; second unit director, Robert Grasmere, Jonathan Goldman (Montreal); second unit camera, Craig Haagensen (N.Y.), Geoffrey Erb (Montreal); casting, Bernard Telsey, William Cantler, David Vaccari. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (World Greats), Aug. 29, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 118 MIN.

With

Lincoln Rhyme - Denzel Washington Amelia Donaghy - Angelina Jolie Thelma - Queen Latifah Capt. Howard Cheney - Michael Rooker Det. Kenny Solomon - Mike McGlone Eddie Ortiz - Luis Guzman Richard Thompson - Leland Orser Dr. Barry Lehman - John Benjamin Hickey Steve - Bobby Cannavale Det. Paulie Sellitto - Ed O'Neill

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