Despite game efforts by cast-against-type Keanu Reeves and aggressive visual vamping by freshman director Joe Charbanic, “The Watcher” emerges as a formulaic thriller that plays more like direct-to-video fare than a megaplex-worthy feature. Lack of similar product in current marketplace could work to pic’s advantage, and fair-to-good opening weekend B.O. is a distinct possibility. More likely, however, “Watcher” won’t attract many viewers until it reaches vidstore shelves.
Top-billed James Spader is competent but less than compelling in the hackneyed role of Joel Campbell, a burnt-out FBI agent suffering a mental meltdown while tracking serial killers in Los Angeles. During his last investigation, he was unable to catch psycho David Allen Griffin (Reeves) during a frantic foot chase. Worse, Campbell also failed to save the wacko’s latest target — Campbell’s married lover — from a fiery demise. Prematurely retired on a disability claim, Campbell moved to Chicago to wallow in grungy obscurity.
Trouble is, Griffin has developed a perverse fondness for his would-be captor. So the psycho traces Campbell to Chicago and announces his intention to resume their cat-and-mouse game. Not surprisingly, Campbell isn’t eager to play. Even less surprisingly, Griffin isn’t the kind of guy who takes rejection very well.
As the dual of wits commences, writers David Elliot and Clay Ayers introduce the one distinctive wrinkle of their by-the-numbers script. To give his pursuer a sporting chance, Griffin establishes a macabre game plan: Hours before each murder, he sends Campbell a photo of his next intended victim — an attractive young woman, of course — and challenges the newly reactivated FBI agent to find her before she meets an untimely demise. The trick is, Griffin carefully chooses women who are sufficiently nondescript to remain unnoticed among the millions in the Windy City. Despite multi-media exposure of the photos, Campbell fails twice to find a victim before deadline.
Charbanic, a veteran of musicvideos, employs a variety of show-offy visual stunts in a desperate attempt to generate suspense. He switches back and forth between grainy video and assorted film stocks, and relies heavily on jump cuts, slo-mo and p.o.v. shots. Vet lenser Michael Chapman (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”) and editor Richard Nord work overtime to ensure “Watcher” is, if nothing else, slick and swift. (Ric Waite is ambiguously credited as “additional director of photography.”)
Unfortunately, Charbanic often sacrifices narrative clarity and moment-to-moment continuity for the sake of achieving his flashy effects. Pic abounds in sudden actions and jolting images that aren’t explained until long afterward. (Campbell’s tragic back-story isn’t entirely clear until the final reel of the pic.) But the pretentious obfuscation can’t freshen the generic cops-and-killers plot. It doesn’t help at all that “Watcher” borrows freely, and obviously, from pics as diverse as “Seven,” “Manhunter,” “The Mean Season,” “In the Line of Fire” and “No Way to Treat a Lady.”
Reeves deserves credit for tackling an offbeat role. But his performance seldom rises above the level of a good try, even when he’s straining for darkly comical effects by bringing a mockingly gee-whiz quality to his line readings. (Truth to tell, the actor occasionally sounds like a recent immigrant with an unsteady grasp of English.) There’s a potentially fascinating plot development — Griffin becomes peevishly jealous of the bond Campbell develops with a compassionate shrink played by Marisa Tomei — but Reeves does disappointingly little with this element of the killer’s twisted psyche.
Spader is aptly haunted in appearance, and stares at photographs with convincing intensity, but he brings only technical proficiency to a character that needs more colors, more depth. Tomei is stuck with some of the pic’s worst dialogue — “How do you feel about his following you to Chicago? Is it a vendetta?” — in a role that calls for only two expressions: sympathetic concern and mortal terror.
Character actor Chris Ellis makes a strong impression with his scene-stealing work as Hollis, a hard-boiled Chicago cop who develops a respectful working partnership with Campbell. Early on, Ellis has a terrific scene in which Hollis calmly converses via cell phone with the FBI agent while chasing, then rousting, a perp. Unfortunately, Ellis is progressively less prominent as the pic winds on, suggesting that his character was greatly diminished in the editing room. Even so, he fares better than Ernie Hudson, whose part as an FBI chief is little more than a fleeting cameo.
Fiery explosions during pic’s melodramatic climax are spectacularly cheesy. Other tech credits are solid.