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'Watcher' is an eyesore


"The Watcher" exists for one reason - to establish how many slow-motion sequences can be crammed into one movie.

They sure show up everywhere: When the main character is having a dream. When the bad guy is approaching his next victim. When the hero is driving down the street. When the director realizes five minutes have gone by without one.

I wish I could simply supply the answer and save untold hundreds the price of admission, but I lost track around 20. At that point - maybe two-thirds of the way through the film - I began addressing what, at the time, seemed like greater concerns. Such as: Was there any butter left in my popcorn? How hard could my foot press on the seat in front of me without actually moving it? Was that a tear on the movie screen or a piece of dust?

Anything, rather than waste precious brain cells thinking about this variation on the "bad man kills women and taunts the cops" theme. "The Watcher" is a story about unmotivated characters trapped in an ill-conceived plot. And the director's only concern seems to be making the film look cool.

Poor old Joe Campbell (James Spader, who's at least trying) is a real mess. An FBI agent whose life is plagued by flashbacks involving an attractive woman and a nasty-looking fire, Joel has all sorts of issues. He's ill, thrashing about on his apartment floor. He's seeing a psychologist (Marisa Tomei, in makeup that ages her about 10 years) who says "How does that make you feel?" and looks perpetually - and gravely - concerned. And he's moved to Chicago from L.A., tired of tracking down psycho killers, apparently under the delusion they're unknown outside the West Coast.

Unfortunately, a particularly loathsome killer named David Allen Griffin (Keanu Reeves) has followed him to the Midwest. His specialty is kidnapping women, tying them up, doing a sort-of kung-fu dance as they sit there helpless, and then killing them.

Naturally, this unnerves Joel, especially when Griffin decides to make it a game. He begins mailing Joel pictures of his victims the morning before killing them, giving our hero roughly 12 hours to save the day.

"The Watcher" wants to be about suspense, and so we're constantly subjected to ticking clocks and desperate detectives. In one of the film's few clever touches, Griffin chooses for his victims women who live out in the open - a homeless panhandler, a photo-store clerk - but are rarely ever noticed. Even when the frantic police plaster the soon-to-be victim's faces all over the city, no one recognizes them.

But for a film to be truly suspenseful, it has to be honest with its audience, and "The Watcher" plays anything but fair. One spectacular chase, with police helicopters chasing Griffin through the streets of Chicago, ends with him escaping in a flaming car. Might this not be visible from the air?

And three detectives waste precious time visiting a would-be victim's mother out in the suburbs, when a phone call would have sufficed, although it wouldn't have been as photogenic.

And then there are those slo-mo shots, which suggest first-time director Joe Charbinac must have once been particularly enamored of "The Six-Million Dollar Man." But what, exactly, are they supposed to signify? Sometimes they suggest a dream, sometimes they depict Joel's point of view, sometimes they depict Griffin's.

And sometimes they're just there, as if the movie has a quota to fill.

'The Watcher'

Starring James Spader, Keanu Reeves and Marisa Tomei

Directed by Joe Charbanic

Released by Universal

Rated R (Violence, language)

Running time 93 minutes

Sun score: *

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