B-movie thrillers, like the new film "The Watcher," were probably considered very special occasions in the 1970s and 80s. In that time, it was thrilling and rare to watch a detective hunt down a drug dealer or a murderer. The hunt for justice was blissfully intoxicating. Those films usually were helmed by top notch filmmakers and starred Al Pacino or Gene Hackman, actors of such grand caliber that made the genre so memorable. But now it's the year 2000. Detective stories are everywherefrom network television to the fiction pages of adult magazines. And the serial killer film? Buried into the ground. All this makes "The Watcher" all the more surprising. A competent, nearly perfectly acted schlocky thriller with enough gumption and resourcefulness that it actually works.
James Spader stars as Jack Campbell, a former detective who spent his career in Los Angeles chasing down a serial killer (Keanu Reeves) who stalks and strangles young, single women. Now living off disability for crippling migraines, Campbell has moved to Chicago for a brand new start, and a chance to get away from the killer that tormented him. Trouble is, the killer has followed Campbell to the Windy City and soon embarks on his old habit of strangling innocents with piano wire. Fearing more needless deaths, Campbell is forced back into the investigation and becomes relentless in trying to stop the mysterious killer once and for all.
Director Joe Charbanic makes a strong first impression with his debut feature. The script by David Elliot and Clay Ayers offers nothing much new to the game, mostly the normal cliches of serial killer stories (the tormenting of the cop involved, the dark warehouse lair). Charbanic, seeming to know the script's inability, keeps the pace lurching forward, never once stopping for us to notice the plot holes or lack of depth. Occasionally, Charbanic's visual style (slow motion, and lots of it, often resembling the debut video from a teenage heavy metal band on a local cable access channel) is absurd and makes "The Watcher" look like the Saturday late night movie that it is deep within its heart. That aside, "The Watcher" is a tightly paced picture full of many remarkable moments of inspiration.
Also elevating the material above sea level is Marco Beltrami's grindhouse score. Matching the sleaze factor of the film note for note, Beltrami fashions a score that gives the proceedings a delicious air of obscenity and menace. Director Charbanic has to contend with pop music selections as well, but he manages to massage the awkward songs into the finished film appropriately. Artists like Rob Zombie and Portishead blare loudly and frequently without warning, and Charbanic makes it work. If you have to have pop songs in your film, at least use them wisely.
James Spader is one of the most underrated actors working today. He is always absolute and always original. His performance in "The Watcher" is a refreshing blend of disgust and regret. Just observing the Spader character as he is forced back into active duty is entertaining enough. Obviously a character that is fed up with goofball witnesses and lazy beat cops, Spader burns the screen with a ferocity that I have never seen out of the actor before. Equally as entertaining is the Spader's genuine irritation that Reeves's killer has moved to Chicago to seek him out. You don't see that realistic a reaction much in thrillers these days.
As for Keanu Reeves, he makes the best out of his supporting role. Even stopping to have a little fun being evil so soon after attaining hero status in his smash role in "The Matrix." Marisa Tomei has less to do in a thankless role as Spader's endangered therapist. After all these years, this is the best the Academy Award winning actress can do?
As these types of cop thrillers go, you could do a lot worse than "The Watcher." Universal Pictures is burying this film in the dead air of September, when in fact this is one of the better films they've had all year. If you're a fan of this genre, this is one film not to miss.
Filmfodder Grade: B