The Watcher



US 2000
dir Joe Charbanic
scr David Elliott, Clay Ayers (story by Elliott, Darcy Meyers)
cin Michael Chapman (with Ric Waite – “additional director of photography”)
stars James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei, Chris Ellis
96 minutes

“It’s a long, horrible story of pain, woe, deception and deceit” – Keanu Reeves on his experiences making The Watcher. And it’s a similar story for the movie’s audiences, with the exception of the ‘long’ part. A running time of 96 minutes suggests either a refreshing, John Carpenter-style economy, or a movie that’s been hacked down to size in post-production. No prizes for guessing which category The Watcher falls into – about all Joe Charbanic he shares with the Halloween maestro are his initials. His background is in pop videos, specifically the promos for Keanu’s band Dogstar, so presumably there’s a bit of doing-a-mate-a-favour in the star’s appearance in this tedious serial-killer would-be thriller. He shouldn’t have bothered.

There are decent ingredients in The Watcher – talented actors, scenic downtown Chicago locales, and, in Michael Chapman, arguably the best cinematographer in the business – but the results suggest they’ve been both underprepared and over-cooked by this debutant director. Or, perhaps, by the unseen studio bigwigs who apparently mucked around with the original cut – the presence of an ‘additional’ director of photography is especially worrying. The end product is a slapdash mixture of endless car chases, flashy camerawork, blaring music and confusing editing combining to mangle what seems to have been a moderately intriguing script.

It’s unclear why killer David Griffin (Reeves) is so fixated on cop Joel Campbell (Spader), to the extent of following him all the way from Los Angeles to his new home in Chicago. Nor are we told why Griffin spends so much of his time dancing around – this despite Reeves looking chubbier than ever. On the plus side, the central gimmick isn’t bad by the standards of the genre: the killer photographs his intended victim and sends the snap to the police, giving them 24 hours to track the person down. Not an easy task in today’s urban jungle – “We’re all stacked right on top of each other,” notes Reeves, “but we don’t really notice each other any more, do we?”

A promising theme, but no-one here has any idea how to develop it, and the movie ends up an achingly predictable variation on the ‘taunting’ genre best exemplified by In The Line of Fire – Reeves may not be a bad an actor as his reputation suggests, but he’s no Malkovich. And The Watcher isn’t even trashily enjoyable, like another variation on the same theme, The Mean Season, which pitted journalist Kurt Russell against psycho Richard Jordan. As in so many poor thrillers, the cops get tantalisingly closer and closer to the killer until he finally picks on the lead’s potential love interest, here a tired-looking Tomei as Spader’s psychiatrist. There’s the customary final showdown in a dank, deserted warehouse, for no other reason than this is how these movies always end. Reeves’ motivation has, by this point, become a total enigma – not that it ever made much sense before.

18th March, 2001