The Bone Collector

Hollywood producers would be well advised to screen The Bone Collector the next time they wonder why they’re despised in so many corners of American society. This one movie should answer all of their questions. Directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, it’s like a pact between director and audience to engage in mutual abasement. Future film historians who view it may ponder less what caused our obsession with serial-killers than why so many careless and irresponsible works flowed from it.

Washington plays Lincoln Rhyme, a forensic scientist and author who’s been turned into a quadriplegic by a freak accident during a crime-scene investigation. Rhyme has been bedridden for four years, and the knowledge that any one of his recurrent seizures might put him in a vegetative state has him on a downward mental slope. In fact, he’s just made arrangements for a doctor friend to aid him in the "final transition" when the first of the film’s many convenient coincidences fall into his lap.

A dead body is discovered by Officer Amelia Donaghy (Jolie), a Youth Services cop who is haunted by her policeman father’s suicide. It’s no ordinary crime-scene: the dead man is buried all except for one hand sticking out of the ground. The hand’s index finger has been skinned to the bone, and balanced on it is the wedding ring of the victim’s wife, whom the murderer has also kidnapped and is planning to murder at his leisure. Though not trained in forensic science, Amelia photographs the body and manages to save some precious clues left behind the killer.

One of Rhyme’s cop buddies (Ed O’Neill) tries to use the case to help Rhyme regain his lust for life. When Rhyme sees the photos that Amelia has taken of the crime-scene, his mind immediately starts working the case, and he insists that Amelia serve as his working hands and eyes. From his posh New York apartment (which resembles a high-tech crime-lab), Rhyme applies his Holmesian knowledge of chemistry, New York City’s criminal history, pipefitting, and publishers’ logos to the clues that Amelia turns up as the killer continues his rampage.

The Bone Collector is a pastiche of so many recent crime-thrillers that one could fall off to sleep by counting them all. Anyone who’s seen Copycat in particular will feel a recurring sense of deja vu. The expert who’s been incapacitated by some trauma, the fiendish killer who is recreating crimes from the past, the realization that the crimes are ultimately directed at the super sleuth – all these elements and more are taken straight from the earlier film. (It speaks volumes that The Bone Collector would find an uninspired time-killer like Copycat to be worth ripping off.) And taking its cue from Seven, The Bone Collector fetishizes its various crime scenes, using each of them as an excuse to hurl a barrage of repellent images into our faces. Pointlessly extended close-ups of scalded bodies, rat-gnawed corpses, and flayed body parts are salted throughout the movie with a revenge tragedy’s singlemindedness.

A fun (and only moderately gory) movie might have been built around the Nero Wolfe-like Rhyme making his quick deductions and transmitting them by radio to Amelia/Archie. But Noyce is a by-the-book plodder; he directs as if he’s in a mental straightjacket. Telephones have to ring four or five times louder than they do in reality, and books tumbling off a shelf have to sound like howitzers when they hit the floor, because that’s how things are done in the movies. Even when Noyce is offered a potent set-piece like the street ambush in Clear and Present Danger, he brings no ideas to it that wouldn’t occur to you or me. The Bone Collector’s implausibilities are impossible to ignore because Noyce lacks the imaginative flair – the flair of a Hitchcock or a Leone – that would make us forget about them. In a movie like this one, the director has to be as diabolical as his killer.

The Bone Collector is inhabited by the usual pop-up figures: the police captain (Michael Rooker, who played the title role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) whose imperious vainglory makes him as threatening as the killer; the brassy live-in nurse (Queen Latifah); and the ethnic streetwise lab assistant (Luis Guzman) who sports a baseball cap and is mainly used for comical reaction shots. These paper-dolls stand around reciting dialogue so bland and processed that it ought to come in shrink-wrap. (I heard only one line – "He needs you over to his place right away" – that sounded like it came from Planet Earth instead of Planet Hollywood.)

Serial-killer movies are so depleted as a form that filmmakers think they can counter the tired formulas only by indulging in wanton artsiness, as in Clean/Shaven or The Minus Man. But the few entries in the genre that had any real punch got it by building a unique atmosphere and then finding the odd but unnerving dimple within it: the killer ambling past a lake while swinging a misshapen sack in Rampage; the senator’s daughter screaming obscenities at her FBI-agent savior in Silence of the Lambs; the two murderers watching and re-watching the videotaped slaughter in Henry. The Bone Collector’s single fresh detail – a quick shot of the police captain’s desk that fleetingly bestows a past, an identity, on the character – is so slight and so bereft of context that it looks like an editing oversight. Much more typical is the movie’s perfunctory stabs at being heartfelt, as when Amelia takes the opportunity while Rhyme is sleeping to touch the single finger that he still has feeling in. And this may well be The Bone Collector’s ultimate bit of hypocrisy: its lip-service to the idea that human tenderness is a good thing.

All of this leads to the inevitable question: What is Denzel Washington doing in trash like this? Washington used to be one of our most promising actors, a man whose self-evident decency, charisma and intelligence created an enormous reservoir of goodwill, but his appearance in a movie like this one threatens to bankrupt those reserves entirely. Even if divorced from the film’s overall gruesomeness, the character of Lincoln Rhyme couldn’t offer much challenge to an actor of Washington’s skill. Bedridden (and thus deprived of the chance to use the body that in Glory could express a magnificent contempt by shrugging one suspender off his shoulder) and reciting dialogue that’s as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance, Rhyme is a role that only an actor whose career is on the downturn would consider playing. Seeing Denzel Washington in a movie like The Bone Collector is like watching a surrender.

Tom Block