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"Spooked" marks Kiwi writer-director Geoff Murphy's return to feature helming on his home turf. Toplining Cliff Curtis ("Whale Rider," "Once Were Warriors") in a fact-based tale of shadowy figures and wire-tapped phones, this conspiratorial nail-biter is a stylish, mostly effective genre exercise that never quite overcomes its familiar conventions.

With: Cliff Curtis, Christopher Hobbs, John Leigh, Miriama Smith.

A paranoia thriller for the information age, “Spooked” marks Kiwi writer-director Geoff Murphy’s return to feature helming on his home turf following a decade-long Hollywood sojourn and several more years spent directing the second unit on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Toplining Cliff Curtis (“Whale Rider,” “Once Were Warriors”) in a fact-based tale of shadowy figures and wire-tapped phones, this conspiratorial nail-biter is a stylish, mostly effective genre exercise that never quite overcomes its more familiar conventions. Set for a local release this year, pic should do most of its spooking in the privacy of viewers’homes.

Murphy’s “Spooked” script was suggested by the real-life case of Paul White, an Auckland computer dealer who unwittingly acquired Citibank records during a purchase of used computer equipment, resulting in a protracted legal battle over ownership of the information — and his own death in a mysterious, “Silkwood”-esque 1991 car accident on the Auckland Harbor Bridge.

In “Spooked,” White becomes Kevin (Christopher Hobbs), who, not realizing the sensitivity of the info he’s stumbled across, attempts to sell the records back to the bank for a $50,000 finder’s fee.

The bank honchos, alas, have their own course of action in mind. At first, they try to intimidate Kevin with threats of financially crippling lawsuits and jail time. When that doesn’t do the trick, they turn to more direct methods of intimidation.

Serving as guide through these increasingly sinister machinations is Mort Whitman (Curtis), a television journalist doing a story on Kevin’s perilous adventures. In a stylistic device that easily might have backfired, Mort also functions as pic’s hard-boiled narrator, literally popping up onscreen throughout to comment on the action, even before he becomes part of the actual story. The gamble pays off, however, thanks to Curtis’ self-confident perf and the jazzy, nourish original score by John Charles and Jonathan Crawford, which sounds like a corrupt, naked city.

In a somewhat novel twist, Kevin begins the pic as an ordinary, slacker-ish bloke with a couple of goofy flat mates and an on-again, off-again girlfriend. But by the time he realizes his computer records may be the smoking gun in a case involving theillegal sale of weapons, he’s become a jumble of raw nerves, sleeping all day, wired all night and rarely venturing outside his apartment door. Hobbs makes a credible transition in the role, lending pic a welcome human dimension.

From its opening shots of the Auckland skyline to its climactic car chase across that fateful bridge, “Spooked” seems in every way a welcome homecoming for Murphy (“Utu,” “The Quiet Earth”), whose 1981 “Goodbye Pork Pie” remains one of the most internationally successful films in New Zealand history. (Murphy’s less impressive Hollywood efforts include “Freejack” and “Under Siege 2.”)

Yet, despite Murphy’s able handling and trademark insertion of unexpected humor into otherwise bleak scenarios, “Spooked” never grips us as strongly as might be expected, or as effectively as this genre’s many hallmarks (including “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men”). Particularly as it moves toward its predictably dire conclusion, pic loses much of its initial charm and seems to be fighting a losing battle with its formulaic dramatic arc.

Production values are strong.


New Zealand

Production: A Silverscreen Films, Ora Digital presentation in association with the New Zealand Film Commission, Capital Pictures, NZ on Air. Produced by Don Reynolds, Merata Mita, Geoff Dixon, Geoff Murphy. Executive producers, Eric Watson, Mark Hotchin. Directed, written by Geoff Murphy, based on material from the book "The Paradise Conspiracy" by Ian Wishart.

Crew: Camera (The Film Unit color, widescreen), Rewa Harre; editor, Mike Horton; music, John Charles; title theme, Jonathan Crayford; production designer, Shayne Radford; sound (Dolby Digital), Dick Reade; casting, Ian Mune. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 19, 2004. Running time: 90 MIN.

With: With: Cliff Curtis, Christopher Hobbs, John Leigh, Miriama Smith.

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