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Lying Down on the Job

The Bone Collector digs up the past with its ode to Silence of the Lambs.

The mutant children of Dr. Hannibal Lecter and his star pupil, agent Clarice Starling, remain doggedly at large in moviedom. There's no serial killer (and no gruesome method of dispatch) that Hollywood now refuses to indulge, and no detective, no matter how hackneyed, who cannot be assigned to the case.

In The Bone Collector, the umpteenth post-Silence of the Lambs variation on the fiendish killer/brainy-cop formula, the murderer has a thing not for sautéed liver and fava beans but for the bizarre homicide customs of Old New York. And like many a monster before him, he likes to leave clues behind -- hanks of hair and chunks of bone. Following a formula-within-the-formula, which he filches from a turn-of-the-century crime history, this psycho rips off one poor devil's ring finger and buries him up to his eyeballs in a dank railroad tunnel. He shackles his next victim to a pipe and steams her like a Maine lobster, encourages rats to devour a third and lashes numbers four and five to a pier in Brooklyn while the tide is rising. Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Dead Calm) takes obvious relish in showing us the tortured bodies and melted faces, as if sensation alone will convince us that this is a serious piece of business. Grotesquery, however, does not equal drama. The moment when Starling extracted that gleaming moth larva from the throat of Buffalo Bill's victim was fraught with terror and meaning: We knew we were in the presence of real evil, real cunning. The attempts of subsequent moviemakers to reproduce that kind of chill don't often cut it. Witness the mere stomach-turning effects in a gorefest like Seven, in which the serial killer bloodily reproduces the seven deadly sins, or the casual dismemberments in Just Cause, which features two murderers, just like Lambs. Absent some sort of dark logic, such violence is sheer exploitation.

Oh, but here's glamorous and talented Denzel Washington, some will note. Suffice it to say that this is one of the matinee idol's more inert performances -- and not just because Lincoln Rhyme, the brilliant New York cop he plays, happens to be a quadriplegic confined to a bed in his Manhattan apartment. You'd be listless, too, if a screenwriter (in this case, Jeremy Iacone, feeding off a potboiler by Jeffery Deaver) gave you lines to recite like "She has an A-plus nose for evidence."

Being Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster: Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector.
Being Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster: Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector.

If we can believe the movie industry, the nation's police departments are fairly bursting with genius, and Detective Washington is no exception. In last year's Fallen (a sharper movie than this one) Denzel portrayed a transcendent Philadelphia cop on the trail of another serial killer, who turned out to be a fallen angel belched up from hell. In the present bundle of cliches, Lincoln Rhyme has written a dozen textbooks on criminal forensics, the entire city is in awe of his gifts, and when he bats his eyes everyone jumps to. The complication is that when his doctor gets back Sunday, good ole Linc plans to kill himself. Four years on his back is long enough, and the next seizure he suffers could transform him from the president of Mensa into a rutabaga.

Sense a telltale thickening of plot? Before you can say "Jumbo popcorn and two medium Cokes -- $18.50," the supine hero has revived his spirits by doing battle with the movie's murderer, and by slowly falling for his protegé, a rookie cop named Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie), who's got all the same instincts he has -- along with usable arms and legs. Rhyme directs the entire manhunt from his bed, using a state-of-the-art computer and sophisticated voice communications equipment, and you can make a pretty good case that the real star of The Bone Collector is high technology itself.

It's certainly not the leading lady. Jolie's Amelia may have an A-plus nose for evidence, but it's the Playing by Heart star's pouting, bee-stung lips that director Noyce and cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves) seem most interested in. The five dozen or so quivering-mouth closeups these filmmakers provide are so numbing after awhile that Jolie begins to look like a porpoise. Little matter that the things her mouth utters are generally inane. "Destiny is what you make it," Amelia has the nerve to say. Thankfully, Jolie has other movies in her future. So do singer Queen Latifah, who plays Rhyme's nurse with verve, and Mike McGlone, Luis Guzman, Michael Rooker and Ed O'Neill, who all play fellow cops.

So does Noyce, I'm afraid. When he's not conducting a tour of New York's dankest abandoned subway tunnels, filthiest former slaughterhouses and slimiest underpasses -- evil thrives in the city's underbelly, in case you haven't heard -- he's tossing in a little peregrine-falcon symbolism (don't ask) and turning a blind eye to half a dozen preposterous lapses of logic. Just one example: The genius cop insists that young Amelia saw one murder victim's hands off at the wrists so that the lab can get a look at the old handcuffs the killer used. Really now, any twelve-year-old could come up with four or five less macabre solutions to that problem.

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