The Bone Collector assumes you know the drill, the serial-killer-movie drill. It gives you most everything you need to know during the first four minutes, half of which take up the credits sequence (the credits themselves are, of course, hyper-scratchy and slashy-looking, very post-Seven stylish). In these few minutes, you see police stills of carved-up bodies, New York City buildings, cops toasting each other for triumphant photo-ops, newspaper headlines, and assorted true crime titles, ascribed to one Lincoln Rhyme.
So, you’re watching all this, and maybe you’re trying to pick out the clues that will surely help you follow, if not actually solve, the upcoming mystery. But then you find yourself distracted, and you’re thinking, what a preposterously perfect name for a heroic crime-fighter: Lincoln Rhyme. The name resonates in ways that probably never occurred to the character’s creators. Most obviously, it recalls the dead president, but beyond that, it invokes young and beautiful Clarence Williams III intoning “solid” in The Mod Squad or rapper Busta Rhymes calling out unseemly police tactics in his brilliant “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”
There’s some irony in all this name baggage, because, as you learn two minutes after the credits, this guy Lincoln Rhyme based on the protagonist in Jeffrey Deaver’s best-selling novel and played by the great and noble Denzel Washington is an ex NYC forensics detective, paraplegic since an on-the-job accident (which comes neatly rehearsed in an introductory bad-dream-flashback, from which Linc wakes in the requisite sweat). The point is, for all his brilliance and success, Linc is not your standard issue heroic crime-fighter. In fact, as you also learn about ten minutes after the credits he’s angry, bored, suffering from debilitating seizures, and suicidal.
Enter the case that will inspire him to live again. Not to mention the amazing young rookie partner female who serves the same purpose. If all this sounds familiar, then you will have gathered that the most aggravating thing about Phillip Noyce’s thriller is its devotion to formula. Call it: Silence of the Lambs meets Seven meets Rear Window meets (appropriately enough) Copycat.
Confined to this overwrought plot as much as he’s confined to Linc’s bed, Washington still manages to make you want to watch what happens (at least until the last ten minutes, which are so stale as to be painful). Here’s the deal: Linc lives in a fantastic apartment, equipped with the latest in everything tech, including a slew of voice-activated computer appliances, like an adjustable bed, flawless scanners and projectors, superspeedy search engines and chips, zoomable monitors, 3-D chess games. (If all law enforcement equipment were so up-to-date and actually functioning, perhaps America’s Most Wanted would be out of business.)
In a word, Linc is ideally generic. As is his adversary, the ingenious serial killer with a grudge and a penchant for elaborate crime scene set-ups. At least as angry and bored as Linc, he spends way too much time leaving obscure, only-Linc-can-read-em type clues at the murder scenes iron bolts with traces of asbestos, scraps of really old paper, ancient subway maps, bits of bone and rat hair. True to formula, he’s determined to wreak vengeance on Linc for some long-forgotten slight. And like any decent movie monster, he’s only visible in masks or shadows as he picks up his victims in his alternately skulking and lurching yellow cab, thus pressing a familiar “worst nightmare” button for any urban dweller (question: will this movie do for taxis what Jaws did for the water?).
In addition to the primary opponents, the film includes the expected third term, the gifted novice. Unlike Jodie Foster in Silence (but like Grace Kelly in Rear Window), Amelia (Angelina Jolie) is stunningly beautiful (the film explains this by making her a child model, much like TV’s Homicide made the detective played by Michael Michele a former beauty queen: in other words, neither accounting seems plausible). She’s also deeply troubled by a childhood trauma, namely, that she discovered her cop dad’s body, dead by suicide (as far as I can tell, she is not haunted by memories of lambs screaming). This is a convenient trauma for her relationship with Linc, of course, since it makes her both sympathetic to his despair but inclined to save him.
Linc and Amelia bond in fits and starts, because he’s imperious and she’s ornery. But he’s struck by her gift for forensics (demonstrated at an early crime scene, where she despite her beat-cop rank insists on taking photos and cataloguing wacky-looking evidence). She’s so good at such activity and so mad at the world that Linc eventually convinces her to take the case with him, in order to: a) avenge the corpses that so appall her, and b) stop the insanity. As Linc’s “eyes and legs” at subsequent drippy-noir murder scenes, Amelia is confronted with bodies in various states of grisly discombobulation while searching for evidence (“working the grid,” as they say in the Crime Scene biz).
Together, Linc and Amelia also fight the usual ignorant hard-ass captain (Michael Rooker) with help from the usual decent but always-a-step-behind detectives, one of whom might be a suspect (Ed O’Neill and Mike McGlone) and the usual lab-team ace (Luis Guzman). Prosaic to its core, The Bone Collector can’t surmount its built-in predictability: the characters you like are appropriate to like, characters you expect to die do so in appropriately horrific ways, and the showdown between Linc and the killer delivers the standard mix of dread, action, and cathartic bloody violence.
Ironically, what would seem the film’s cheesiest distraction the unsubtly building romance between Linc and Amelia is its most fascinating aspect, if only because it’s so skillfully executed by its players. Inevitably, the relationship gives them both what they so desperately need, he being suicidal (how conveniently like her father, so she can revisit old bullshit) and she being commitment-phobic. It’s the very small gestures that make any of this begin to work. After Amelia witnesses a particularly harrowing seizure, she approaches Linc’s dozing form to touch his tracheotomy scar and then his fingers. He wakes, for once not from a nightmare, and they share a painfully delicate moment, laced with awkward joking and seemingly real affection. For an instant, you might forget that they’re restricted by the plot to come. But only for an instant.