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THE WATCHER

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: James Spader, Marisa Tomei, Keanu Reeves
Director: Joe Charbanic
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Universal
Features: Trailer, Production Notes, Cast Bios, DVD-Rom Content
Length: 97 Minutes
Release Date: February 20, 2001

Film **1/2

The Watcher is an atmospheric serial killer stirrer that unfortunately covers too much familiar territory. Many viewers can agree that their have been countless movies where a madman is being pursued by the police through the whole movie, only to have the villain remain one step ahead, not matter how implausible it might seem. The Watcher does have those moments, and I did sigh at them, but when the film is reduced to the story concerning its two principal characters, it becomes very tense and highly intriguing. Lying underneath the formula of this thriller is a psychological element between the hero and the villain of the movie that feels new, and that other movies in this genre havenít quite touched. Itís only too bad that the movie couldnít have dealt with that aspect of the story, instead or resorting your basic manhunt thriller. Having just watched the brilliant thriller Manhunter for the first time, it makes it easy to notice how another film in the same genre falters, and although The Watcher does boasts some individual fresh moments, itís not at the level of a landmark thriller such as that 15 year old Manhunter. 

The movie is given an extra boost by the credible performances of the lead actors, who in this case are James Spader and Keanu Reeves, who both take a stab at playing characters they donít usually portray. Spader, whoís been seen many a time as a psychopath is emotionally torn FBI agent Joel Campbell. And who wouldíve ever expected Keanu Reeves to take a turn as a serial killer? I certainly didnít, and the actor really surprised me with his cool, sinister portrayal of serial killer David Allen Griffin.

The movie opens with Agent Campbell, formerly working for the bureau in Los Angeles, now working for the FBI in Chicago. When he was in Los Angeles, Campbell was a firm, very dedicated law enforcer who had succeeded in putting away several high profile killers. However, one killer, Griffin, proved to be too smart and elusive for Campbell, and it resulted in the death of someone very close to him. This traumatic event led Campbell to relocate to Chicago, where he intended on starting over, though the past is still haunting him. Now on painkillers to control the migraines caused by his tragic past, Campbell finds himself making frequent trips to a shrink (Marisa Tomei) whenever the past enters his mind. To make matters worse, it turns out that Griffin has traced the agent to Chicago, and begins to taunt with agentís head once again.

There are numerous scenes that depict how Griffin targets his victims, which are young women who live by themselves. One clever scene has Griffin flirting with a girl in a camera shop. He asks to take her picture, which he will later use to send to the police, notifying that she is in danger. Another scene has him come across a homeless, but attractive young girl. She asks him for some spare change, and he will only give her some if she dances with him. Reeves does something interesting with his character in this film. He essentially uses his charm and winning smile that heís known for doing in some of his other movies as a neat disguise for his sinister side, which is anything but charming.

I mentioned earlier that the movie contained a rather interesting element between the agent and the killer, and it is the strongest moment that The Watcher has to offer. Campbellís shrink develops a theory that he and Griffin are two men who might possess a psychological need for one another. Itís not often that a hunted man follows an agent from one city to another, and this possible psychological need maybe one of a brotherhood-like link, where one cannot live without the other.

The Watcher garners a mixed reaction from me. There were parts of it that I admired, and other scenes that came across as tired, clichťd moments. The movieís key moments of suspense, like the climatic fight in an abandoned warehouse laced with candles and gasoline, are unoriginal and tired for sure. However, the movie does a good job from a technical standpoint, and makes these scenes somewhat intriguing. I enjoyed the performances very much. Those who squinted at the notion of Keanu Reeves playing a serial killer might be surprised at how effective he is, and Spader boats one his most effective performances to date as the scarred Agent Campbell. What The Watcher suffers from primarily is the fact that it is part of a genre that has presented far better thrillers such as Seven and Manhunter, and it elaborates too much on the familiar aspects of itís serial killer story, and doesnít do a whole lot with the subplots, which are much more fresh and intriguing.

Video ***

Universal offers up a mostly good video transfer of a movie in which most of the scenes take place at night. Give or take a few scenes which appear somewhat soft, this anamorphically enhanced widescreen presentation for the most part clear, with no other noticeable flaws. Colors are displayed very well and appear very naturally. Overall, a exceptional offering.

Audio ****

I didnít see this movie in the theaters, but I can certainly say that the audio transfer on this movie probably added a whole lot to the effect. Universal delivers a good deal of tension with their 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation, which captures everything from the musical score to every possible sound effect in the movieís numerous action scenes. I mentioned the climatic scene in the warehouse, which is especially effective in this audio transfer. A wonderful job.  

Features *

Universal for some reason pulled the plug on their usual offerings, such as a behind the scenes documentary, or a commentary track, and only offers a trailer as its primary feature. What irritated me most about this area, other than the fact that for a while Universal was excelling in this field, is the fact that they elaborated on the Production Notes and Cast Bios, as if they were exciting extras. I hope this isnít implying that the studio isnít planning on reducing themselves to this in their extras, much like were known for doing with their early releases.

Summary:

The Watcher, although containing some exciting performances and illustrating a little bit of attempted originality, falls victim to the conventions of the serial killer genre. However, fans of Keanu Reeves will very much want to check out a new side of him in this character.