A scene from 'The Watcher'
Courtesy Photo
* stars 93 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 8, 2000
Directed by Joe Charbinac

Starring James Spader, Keanu Reeves, Marisa Tomei, Ernie Hudson & Chris Ellis

This film is on the Worst of 2000 list.


A psycho killing girls and tormenting a cop with whom he has a rivalry? Gee, how original. Don't even bother.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 02.20.2001


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Criminally miscast serial killer thriller 'The Watcher' too laughable to be tense, too dull to be scary

By Rob Blackwelder

Keanu Reeves may very well be the least convincing, least frightening serial killer in the history of the psycho-thriller genre in "The Watcher."

Starring as a supposedly brilliant whack job who strangles lonely young girls with piano wire, he delivers his dialogue as if every line ended with the word "dude" and somebody dubbed it out in post-production.

"Shall we dance (dude)?" he grins goofily at a simpering girl he's tied to a chair, shaking his ratty surfer hair from side to side as a voice-over by haunted FBI guy James Spader explains that Reeves likes to revive his victims over and over in order to torture them.

Spader, you see, was Reeves nemesis during his last killing spree in Los Angeles. Flipped out by their game of cat and mouse, the cop has moved to Chicago on a psych pension and is busy doing all the typical things troubled cops do in movies -- living in a dumpy, unkempt apartment with the shades drawn, popping handfuls of pills he keeps in his otherwise empty refrigerator, etc. But Reeves has followed him to the windy city to resume the game, sending Spader photos of each girl he's targeted with 24-hours notice, just to make it more interesting (for himself anyway, certainly not for the audience).

And such is the rudderless and hole-riddled plot of this picture from Joe Charbanic, a rookie director who needed to gestate in music videos a little longer to get over his fascination with visual gimmicks.

Despite his film being called a thriller, Charbanic is clearly stumped for ideas on how to build suspense. He burns lots of screen time playing with random negative-exposure flashes to soup up the killing scenes and grainy, jerky slow-mo flashbacks for Spader, who was apparently devastated by failing to save one of Reeves' earlier victims.

Such stylistic flares are clearly a higher priority for the director than, say, character development or performances, and as a result "The Watcher" is so deadly dull that I actually envied the victims, who by dying got to leave the movie early.

The film begins with a slow-motion shot of Reeves dancing headbanger-style to a Rob Zombie song while taunting a victim in an abandon warehouse. I defy anyone to get through this scene without laughing out loud.

Meanwhile SWAT teams repel from helicopters flying overhead and cop cars converge as if they're about to catch him -- when suddenly the movie jumps out of context without explanation. After the opening credits, the story plays as if this scene never happened and Charbanic doesn't bother to explain -- which gets to be a habit for him.

Without any clear establishing backstory, the audience is left to their own devices in trying to make sense of Spader's frequent but vague nightmares, to contemplate Reeves' motive, and guess why he's considered some kind of elusive forensics expert just because he wears rubber gloves to strangle his victims -- as if their violent struggles aren't scattering his hair, skin and other DNA samples hither and yon at every crime scene.

But if it's continuity or logic you want from your psychological slasher flicks, "The Watcher" isn't the movie for you. Sometimes Charbanic can't even decide what kind of movie he's making, tossing in wise-cracking cops, random action movie car chases and an exploding filling station that have nothing to do with the plot.

If you just want to be scared, you should probably shop around as well. Every place Charbanic expects a scream or a chill in this picture, he more frequently sets himself up for is a snicker -- that is, from anyone who hasn't fallen asleep from the movie's droning monotony.

With a benumbing performance, Spader sets the tone on that front. He looks like he can't wait to hear "Cut!," retire to his trailer and mourn his career. Reeves' killer is barely a pencil sketch of a murderer compared to even the most nondescript psychos of this genre. The boring nut cases in movies like "kiss the girls" or "Copycat" have the charisma of a Hannibal Lecter compared to this sleeping pill of a serial killer.

Spader's shrink -- and Reeves' eventual showdown victim -- is played by Marisa Tomei with such a fatigued, high-strung vibe that you'd think she should be the one on the couch. But that doesn't make her any more interesting, either.

And when "The Watcher" does arrive at its finale, the way it plays out is so absurd I had to wonder if Reeves might have been a failed screenwriter in L.A. before he became a deranged murderer.

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