The Bone Collector (1999)

D: Philip Noyce
S: Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie

Ace forensics cop Denzel Washington is paralysed in an accident on the job, but when a clever serial killer begins to cause a panic, the injured detective collaborates with perceptive street cop Angelina Jolie to solve the case. After a quite intriguing first two thirds, The Bone Collector collapses in its final reel. As the threads of the mystery begin to come together and the narrative moves towards resolution, the emptiness of the film is exposed. After all of the hints, feints, and little details, the viewer comes to realise that there is nothing at its heart but a mass of contrivances and clichés. The deeper questions of character raised by the fascinating premise have petered out to Hollywood screenwriter's textbook backstory motivations, the relationships supposedly central to its human side are reduced to convenient plot devices to provide the film with a weak and unbelievable coda, and the villain, when he finally appears, has been obvious from about an hour in purely because anyone with an ounce of familiarity with narrative structure will realise that there's no one else it could be. The film eventually becomes a routine and borderline moronic bit of by-the-numbers thriller-making, and you realise that even when it was entertaining, it was very empty, which leaves you dissatisfied and vaguely angry.

This is one of those 'road to hell' situations, as quite a lot of effort has gone into the production. There is plenty of solid craftsmanship on display and the film will doubtlessly entertain undemanding video renters or late-night viewing genre fans. Washington rises well to a challenging role, exploring both sympathetic and repugnant aspects of his character with barely more than facial gestures and vocal characterisation to help him. Jolie likewise registers a believable performance as someone struggling with her own inner demons, and the relationship between them promises to deliver interesting emotional and psychological correspondences. On some level and for a little while it does so, but the film then surrenders them to an inevitable 'romantic' denouement which doesn't really wash (we are all too aware that this is a screenwriting contrivance rather than a genuine emotional connection between human beings). Supporting performances from Queen Latifah, Michael Rooker, Luis Guzman, and Ed O'Neill are also solid enough.

Director Philip Noyce does a good job of moving things along, and with cinematographer Dean Semler, crafts a visual world which is both creepy and real enough to enhance the suspense throughout. Care and attention has gone into the film on every level, and even Jeremy Iacone's screenplay has been constructed with due attention to detail. The problem is that it becomes obvious that it is craftsmanship and gamesmanship first, meaningful filmmaking second (if at all). Everything in the film is designed for affect. All of the fetishistic detail about forensics and the mechanics of Washington's investigation reveal nothing about the killer and little enough about the heroes. When it comes to providing a climax and tying up the story, all pretence of psychology and realism is dropped in favour of melodramatic cliché, and the crucial bit of evidence which breaks the case cannot fail to elicit a laugh from anyone who has ever seen John Boorman's Zardoz.

When it works, it is gripping. Solid craftsmanship has made many a popcorn-muncher terrific entertainment and for a while the film is involving and exciting. But when it does not work, the audience realises they've been had. It becomes perfunctory and laughable in a way which kills any respect it may have earned in its early stages, and by the time it ends, it has lost you completely. Hitchcock may have been the master of manipulation, but his films always eventually revealed rich undersides which made them even more enjoyable. Noyce is interested in the human dynamics of his story only insofar as they fill in the blanks between sequences of forensic exposition and puzzle-book detection (punctuated by extended suspense scenes), and it finally becomes fatally obvious that the two primary story threads are interrelated only because the script says they should be. When it comes to finally solving the mystery and revealing the killer's motivation, we are presented with a stream of gibberish which doesn't come close to making sense on a deeper level (even Hitchcock realised that the penultimate scene in Psycho where the psychiatrist explained the plot was bogus, but he knew how to end with a terrific frisson anyway) and this resolves the character issues only insofar as we are presented with a well-mounted but unlikely action scene with a laughably predictable set-up and pay-off. The film ends with a wet and self-congratulatory coda which will leave most viewers cold and ends the story just because it is time to get the next show running.

Well directed but unrewarding, The Bone Collector will probably hold its own well enough as a commercial proposition, but one has to wonder if there's more to life than that. There are some points of interest, but not enough to make it worthwhile for anyone other than casual viewers. Silence of the Lambs it is not, but then you knew that anyway.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with commentary, trailers, and a production documentary.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.