After a promising debut with "Shadow of the Vampire," director E. Elias Merhige stumbles in his transition to a more traditional thriller -- delivering a plodding and familiar "cop sees what the killer sees" riff. "Suspect Zero" appears destined for a brief theatrical life, with better prospects of tracking down business in ancillary venues.

After a promising debut with “Shadow of the Vampire,” director E. Elias Merhige stumbles in his transition to a more traditional thriller — delivering a plodding and familiar “cop sees what the killer sees” riff that plays like a poorly inflated “The X-Files” episode. With minimal star power and a somewhat convoluted premise, “Suspect Zero” registers closer to its titular digit than Bo Derek territory on a 1-to-10 scale, and appears destined for a brief theatrical life, with better prospects of tracking down business in ancillary venues.

Starting with the “Blair Witch”-y appearance of its signature image — a zero with a nil slash through it — there’s little that feels fresh about this project, which begins earnestly enough but exhausts too much time building toward a “reveal” that’s actually in its trailer.

In a straight leading man turn unlike his shadier roles in the company of Neil LaBute, Aaron Eckhart plays discredited FBI agent Thomas Mackelway. Booted from Dallas down to the backwater of New Mexico, he’s almost instantly confronted with a baffling homicide and reunited with his former partner and lover (Carrie-Anne Moss).

Fairly quickly, Mackelway begins to piece together that the perpetrator, Benjamin O’Ryan (Ben Kingsley), is pursuing serial killers and seems to possess some sort of extra-sensory powers. In the midst of their cat-and-mouse game, though, the prey keeps dangling clues, baiting an increasingly frustrated agent tormented by his own rose-colored visions. “You want me to see what you see,” Mackelway says as he sifts through the breadcrumbs.

Shown at first through dizzyingly extreme close-ups, Kingsley has the crazed look of a man experiencing the tortures of the damned, and with its eerie music and seemingly disconnected string of killings, pic sustains interest for a brief while.

The pacing, however, creeps along too slowly, with a stale emphasis on gauzy images as Mackelway and O’Ryan “see” events — a poor man’s version of ground trodden by “Red Dragon” as well as its earlier (and better) incarnation, “Manhunter.” Merhige rightfully won praise for his visual style on “Vampire,” but here the various gimmicks do little to advance the story.

Nor does the narrative do an especially good job of developing and focusing in on the intriguing idea of “suspect zero,” a serial killer who follows no discernible pattern and thus might be responsible for an inordinate number of those missing faces on milk cartons. At times, in fact, the story feels like two movies compacted into one, either of which might have been more satisfying on its own.

For the most part, “Suspect Zero” is structured as a two-character piece, with Moss barely along for the ride, and one of her “The Matrix” series co-stars, Harry Lennix, cast in the highly predictable role of Mackelway’s overly hostile boss, huffily snapping orders about making progress, pronto.

Merhige does exercise admirable restraint in depicting the slayings, which manage to convey a sense of grisliness without being excessively graphic.

Indeed, the only real overkill resides in the credits, featuring no fewer than 11 producers, including a half-dozen exec producers. Notably, the listed contributors also prominently cite a “remote viewing” consultant, who, one would think, should have foreseen at least some of these deficiencies coming.

Suspect Zero

Production

A Paramount release presented in association with Intermedia Films and Lakeshore Entertainment of a C/W Production. Produced by Paula Wagner, E. Elias Merhige, Gaye Hirsch. Executive producers, Jonathan Sanger, Moritz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi. Co-producers, Lester Berman, Darren Miller. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. Screenplay, Zak Penn, Billy Ray; story by Penn.

Crew

Camera (DeLuxe color), Michael Chapman; editors, John Gilroy, Robert K. Lambert; music, Clint Mansell; music, supervisor, Brian Ross; production designer, Ida Ransom; art director, Guy Barnes; set decorator, Wendy Barnes; costume designer, Mary Claire Hannan; sound (Dolby Digital, DTS), Bayard Carey; visual effects, Alan Edward Bell, Boy Wonder, Pacific Title and Art Studio; special effects supervisor, Matt Kutcher; assistant director, Joan Cunningham; second unit director, Buddy Joe Hooker; stunt coordinator, Hooker; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood. Reviewed at Paramount studios, Los Angeles, Aug. 12, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Thomas Mackelway - Aaron Eckhart Benjamin O'Ryan - Ben Kingsley Fran Kulok - Carrie-Anne Moss Rick Charleton - Harry Lennix
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