Rated R - Running Time: 1:33 - Released 9/8/00

I first saw Keanu Reeves in 1989, when he was very believable in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Parenthood, the two films he did that year. This could be because he was playing a valley-talking teenager in both movies. Later, he achieved widespread critical acclaim as a cool-headed cop in Speed. Lately, however, Keanu has been suffering a slump, turning in unconvincing performances in a plethora of roles, including a devil-plagued attorney in The Devil's Advocate (1997), a computer geek turned action hero in The Matrix (1998), and a substitute football player in The Replacements (currently in theatres). Joe Charbanic's directorial debut The Watcher, however, which stars Reeves as a serial killer who enjoys eluding the cops even more than he loves applying piano wire to the necks of his female victims, plumbs the depths of Keanu's inability to convince.

Reeves plays traveling psychopath David Allen Griffin, who, according to the screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers (based on the story by Elliot and Darcy Meyers), is originally from L.A. but he loves the cat-and mouse game he has established with FBI agent Joel Campbell (James Spader) so much that he follows him to Chicago when Campbell moves there. Campbell has retired from the force and begun therapy with a psychiatrist (Marisa Tomei) who is helping him through some issues including but not limited to his involvement with Griffin. However, when the killer shows up again, Campbell knows he is the only one who can deal with the situation. He must join up with the local agents (Chris Ellis, Robert Cicchini) and use his knowledge of Griffin's methods to avoid another killing spree.

Like the killer in The Bone Collector, Griffin is an expert at forensics and knows how to commit his crimes without leaving a shred of evidence, but intentionally gives Campbell clues as to the identity of his next victim. However, Griffin's method is more simple than that of the Bone Collector killer: rather than leaving a bunch of stuff at the scene for Campbell to figure out, he simply sends him a picture of his current target. The fact that he is able to get photos of his victims, while they're still alive and smiling, shows that he is a "watcher," one who learns every minute detail about the life of his prey before he snuffs it out. He learns her schedules, the places she goes, the people she knows, etc. The challenge is for Campbell and his associates to find the girl before Griffin does the deed. But when "the watcher" targets the beautiful Dr. Tomei, the pressure is really on.

The inadequacies of Keanu Reeves hamstring this film for the most part, although more credible performances by Spader, Tomei, and the rest of the cast help a great deal. It's hard to know whether to laugh or groan at Reeves's reading of his creepy character, but neither of those reactions are the desired result. I don't know if Spader is acting tired or whether he really is tired, but his performances has a subtle tension to it despite the dead look in his eyes. Tomei, who has precious little screen time, uses it well. This is not a bad debut for director Charbanic, who keeps the tension going well in what amounts to three separate acts, with flashbacks of Campbell's L.A. days and several chase scenes with and without wheels. There are numerous minor continuity errors, like people not being wet after emerging from a canal, but generally all the points of the emotional scale are reached. But then there's Keanu.

Sorry about that. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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