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By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Like a great many films this fall, The Bone Collector is based on a best-selling novel. Somewhere along the line (shortly after publication, no doubt), someone in Hollywood thought that the literary chills of Jeffrey Deaver's hit crime shocker would translate into cinematic thrills. The Bone Collector now finds itself stocked with pretty cast members (Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie) and helmed by a polished director (Phillip Noyce of Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games fame). It can now be safely noted that, as a film, The Bone Collector makes for a great book.

Denzel Washington stars as Deaver's high-concept hero Lincoln Rhyme, a New York City homicide detective so dazzlingly brilliant that he's written a dozen books on crime and crime scene investigation. Unfortunately, a freak accident has left Rhyme a quadriplegic for the last four years. The bedridden detective occasionally lends his legendary deducting skills to the NYC police department, but is steadily slipping into a suicidal funk between brain seizures -- any one of which could leave him a mental vegetable for the rest of his life.

Rhyme finds a reason to go on one day, though, when Amelia Donaghy, a child model-turned-rookie cop (played improbably by Angelina Jolie), stumbles across a grisly crime scene. Seems that one of those colorful, brilliantly nutty cinematic serial killers who leaves tantalizing puzzles for police to solve is at it again. Rhyme is immediately struck with the guts and intuitive abilities of Officer Donaghy (she stopped an Amtrak train to prevent it from running over valuable evidence) and demands that she be placed in charge of the investigation. Despite the fact that she's never had any training as a detective, Donaghy takes over tracking this wily serial killer under the apt tutelage of Rhyme.

What follows is a blatant attempt to replicate the grisly crime-time feel of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Fans of those films are likely to have their grim appetites momentarily satisfied with The Bone Collector, but will hardly find it as satisfying a meal.

As with all crime films, audiences are expected to swallow a certain amount of fabrication and unlikely circumstance. But even those wildly unfamiliar with detective work should be able to tick off the blatant violations in police procedure on display in The Bone Collector by the hundreds. Since Rhyme doesn't want the crime scenes "contaminated," Donaghy is required to walk apprehensively with flashlight held high into numerous dark warehouses and muddy basements all by her lonesome. This scare tactic becomes downright preposterous by film's end, with Donaghy galumphing from one deadly situation to the next without so much as a police dog to back her up. The film's most grating, unanswered question, though, is why Rhyme bothers to hook up with Officer Donaghy in the first place. There's plenty of talk about her "potential," her "affinity for forensic work" and her "intuitive abilities" -- but none of these elements is actually put to work in the case at hand. Rhyme and Donaghy are dealing with a killer who leaves a nice, tidy pile of clues stacked neatly beside each victim. Each pile contains clues to the killer's next prey. Any drunken four-year-old could stumble across these clues. What special "intuitive ability" does it take to find the pile of clues stacked directly beside the dead body?

Presumably, the book spent a good deal of time poring over clues and analyzing minute details. A movie doesn't have time for such luxuries. As a result, the character of Lincoln Rhyme comes across as little more than a flip, impossibly precognitive update of Sherlock Holmes. When given the choice of three possible crime scene locations, for example, Rhyme simply picks one at random -- and, of course, it's the correct one.

There are many other moments scattered throughout The Bone Collector that belie its pagebound roots as well. The film tries desperately to build a long, slow tension and to shock viewers with its gruesome attention to detail. Such devices work far better in print, and director Phillip Noyce, more often than not, finds himself resorting to mundane spookhouse scares to goose a reaction from his fading audience.

Ultimately, the film's thrills and chills (and there are a few) would be far more engrossing if the whole thing weren't such a yawningly predictable affair: "Red Herring" alert, "Red Herring" alert; "False Scare" coming in at 10 o'clock; "Breathtaking Last-Second Save" set to go in T-minus 10 ... 9 ... 8 ...

Denzel Washington does a commanding enough job in a role that only allows him to move his left index finger. Lovely Angelina Jolie (still waiting for her on-screen stardom to match her magazine cover hype) does the best she can, but just doesn't match the film's unglamorous tone. Tiny bits of armchair psychology are doled out in everyone's direction (Donaghy's afraid of following in her dead cop father's footsteps; Rhyme would rather check out early than face becoming a useless vegetable), but they don't ever amount to much more than character background for actors to chew over.

Rabid readers of "true crime" books may have their sanguinary tastes sated by The Bone Collector's morbid drama, but most viewers will merely find themselves even more impatiently awaiting the upcoming film sequel to Silence of the Lambs.


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