Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Suspect Zero

To paraphrase the Buzzcocks' immortal question, have you ever fallen in love with something you shouldn't have fallen in love with?  I don't know why, but I really like the idea of the thriller movie genre.  That's unfortunate, because there are damn few good thrillers out there.  Like a love-sick moron, though, I find myself going back to the genre that has treated me bad, time and time again.  I thought that Suspect Zero might be different.  It has Aaron Eckhart, who has been pretty good in the few films of his I've seen, and Ben Kingsley, who is an acclaimed actor, even if I haven't seen him in much.  The director's previous film was the pretty clever Shadow of the Vampire, so that was a promising sign, too.  There are also warning signs that this might not be a good movie.  Tom Cruise produced the film, but had his name removed from the credits.  One of the writers co-wrote X-Men 3, Elektra, and Inspector Gadget.  Yeesh.  What will win, solid acting and directing, or poor writing?

FBI agent Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) has found himself shuffled off to the Phoenix office, which is so lame that they don't have a Starbucks anywhere nearby (hmm...I seriously doubt the truth of that).  Despite the demotion (in stature, if not pay), Mackelway finds himself involved in a serial killer case right off the bat.  The weird thing about this case is that the killer is littering the crime scenes with clues that lead to other crime scenes.  One seemingly dull man is found dead and, at the place where he was last seen, the killer's car is found with another dead body in the trunk, and the body is the first breadcrumb of evidence that leads to several murders across several states.  The dead bodies all have their eyelids cut off and a circle with a line through it found at every scene.  Okay...pretty creepy, right?  Well, it turns out that the killer knows about Mackelway and he starts mailing and faxing him stuff --- seemingly random numbers, missing person reports, and hand-scrawled notes egging him on.  Will Mackelway be able to catch this killer?  Probably, since this is a movie.  The question is, rather, once he finds the killer, will the truth behind the murders lead Mackelway to arrest or help with the next kill?

At least, that's how the synopsis of this movie should go.  Instead, every review, preview, brief summary, and movie trailer for this film explains that the serial killer is murdering other serial killers. 
A killer targeting bad guys?  How novel.
Unfortunately for this movie, that defining plot element isn't revealed until almost an hour into the movie.  Sorry, plot twist, but everybody knows you're coming to the party.  That annoying reveal aside, how does the film fare?

Despite a decent cast, Suspect Zero feels like a B-movie.  As the serial killer, Ben Kingsley succeeds in making his character unsympathetic and inhuman.  Unfortunately, that same alien nature also makes his line delivery suspect, with occasionally shouted lines at inappropriate times.  To tell the truth, it feels like Kingsley is slumming in this role.  Aaron Eckhart is decent enough when he is playing detective, but his character is awfully cliched.  I normally find Eckhart to be inoffensive, but he is forced to overact in this role and I can only take so many shots of him with crazy eyes before I get bored.  Carrie-Anne Moss plays Eckhart's reluctant partner and the window to his "mysterious" past --- her character is more of a convenient way to fill in the character background for Eckhart than anything else, so I suppose she was fine.  The cast is rounded out by a group of recognizable character actors.  Harry Lennix plays the stereotypically not "with it" FBI boss, William Mapother is an inconsequential-to-the-plot FBI agent, and Frank Collison played his typical creepy role.
Collison says you just missed Kingsley, FBI man.  He R-U-N-N-O-F-T.

Director E. Elias Merhige tried to craft a standard thriller with the pieces available to him, but he was working with a pretty ridiculous script.  All the pieces for a crafty thriller are there, with surprising plot reveals that force the characters to make radical decisions, but I don't think Merhige knew what to do with the more Stephen King-ish aspects to the movie.

That's right, this script has some unexplained supernatural phenomena in it, a la Mr. King.  Surprisingly, the script is not based on one of his books, though.  You see, Ben Kingsley's character has the psychic ability to "see" serial killers, but he can't stop "seeing" them, so he has gone off the deep end.  And he apparently can "see" Aaron Eckhart's character, even though he is not a serial killer.  And Aaron Eckhart can kind of "see" things, too.  And sometimes, this "sight" lets them glimpse the future.  Ponder that for a few moments and let it sink in.
Are your detective skills warning you about a bad movie?

Suspect Zero is a surprisingly dumb movie.  The filmmakers took the concept of a serial killer --- and I think we can agree that they're scary because they look like normal people, right? --- and makes the primary killer (Kingsley) very abnormal with his mental abilities.  That's missing the appeal of the concept in a very basic way.  And how about those mental abilities?  Kingsley sees into the minds of serial killers --- except when he's looking at a good FBI agent! --- and can see into the future, which nothing to do with connecting his mind to another person's.  I get it, I get it, if you're willing to swallow the clairvoyant serial killer bit, it's not much more of a stretch to add "prescient" to his resume.  It's still silly and lame.  And I absolutely love that Eckhart's apparent psychic power is never explained and nobody seems very interested in it.  Ugh.  This movie stirs up my bile.

The worst thing about Suspect Zero is that it fails with even the most modest of goals.  It never tries to be terribly interesting or competent, it just wants to be a mediocre thriller that will periodically wind up on SyFy at 3AM.  If the whole psychic thing was played up a bit more as the reason this movie is special, then I might have another opinion, but the film was emphasizes the whole serial killer killing serial killers bit.  That seemingly can't miss formula --- twice the crazy killers = twice as awesome --- can't succeed if the killers are free of personality and/or believability.  On the bright side, there is a scene that implies bestiality with a donkey, which most serial killer movies don't have.  There are also a few idiotic timing/editing mistakes that I found very enjoyable; the best was Kingsley's first kill, where he left a building after his prey and still managed to sneak into the back seat of his victim's car without the victim (who walked directly to his vehicle) noticing.  These occasional lapses in quality control are really the only things that entertained me in this movie.

If you're not familiar with the Buzzcocks, here's a video of the band in their late-70s prime.  It doesn't really have anything to do with Suspect Zero, but it kept popping up in my head while writing this review, and that's all the excuse I need.

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