With His Little Finger, Washington Bags Bad Guy

Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector , from a screenplay by Jeremy Iacone, based on the book by Jeffery Deaver, manifests itself as a visually elegant, often gruesome thriller that tries to make hailing a cab in Manhattan seem as dangerous as taking a shower in a motel was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). A serial murderer is on the loose, and his modus operandi consists of luring his victims into his cab, locking them in, driving them to a lonely place in Manhattan and then entombing them in the bowels of the borough. We never get a look at the face of the murderer until the violent climax of the movie, and I must say that my educated guesses along the way proved to be wrong.

Denzel Washington plays the fancifully named Lincoln Rhyme, a renaissance-man forensics detective who has been rendered a quadriplegic by a spinal injury received in the line of duty. He is bed-bound with the use of one finger to manipulate his high-tech environment provided by the Police Department. Rhyme has written many books on his specialty and is one of the world’s leading criminologists. Nonetheless, he is so depressed at what he perceives to be his own impending vegetative state that he is planning suicide.

At this point, the department drops a juicy murder case in his lap, and he becomes intrigued by the expert investigative instincts displayed by a mysteriously moody policewoman named Amelia Donaghy and played by Angelina Jolie, who in this movie, at least, struck me as a distracting dead ringer for Ashley Judd in Bruce Beresford’s Double Jeopardy . Ms. Judd and Ms. Jolie project the same feisty, pouty, almost surly expression, especially just before they burst into tears of explosive exasperation and frustration. Since both Mr. Noyce and Mr. Beresford are former Australian directors of great cultural eminence now comfortably ensconced on Hollywood’s high-budget action-movie aerie, there is always the temptation for highbrow but financially impoverished film critics to proclaim that two more exalted foreign filmmakers have sold out to the filthy lucre of Lotus Land. I prefer to think that Mr. Noyce and Mr. Beresford have chosen to accept the challenges of mass-audience, big-star projects, by providing something extra with their transcendent directorial talents. That is to say, Mr. Noyce and Mr. Beresford make The Bone Collector and Double Jeopardy absorbingly and entertainingly watchable despite the silly lapses and improbabilities in the respective scripts.

Be that as it may, The Bone Collector is more original though less audience-pleasing than Double Jeopardy , which shrewdly splices the story lines from Thelma & Louise and The Fugitive . Mr. Washington, generally a diffident and reluctant star talent, is well cast as a physically handicapped but mentally overloaded mentor for Ms. Jolie’s emotionally insecure but sharp-eyed, sharp-witted and sharp-tongued policewoman, to ease her rite of passage through the horrors of forensically perceived crime scenes.

Mr. Washington and Ms. Jolie interact both emotionally and cerebrally without too many contrived complications to make their characters more cutely contentious. Rhyme and Donaghy are ably assisted in their mind-body collaboration by Queen Latifah’s no-nonsense Thelma, Rhyme’s live-in nurse; Michael Rooker’s Captain Howard Cheney, who has it in for Rhyme and Donaghy simply because they are treading on his turf; Mike McGlone’s Detective Kenny Solomon, a suspicious-looking character, who was obviously fed to me as a red-herring suspect whom I swallowed hook, line and sinker; Luis Guzman’s Eddie Ortiz, a lab technician with an encyclopedic knowledge of possible crime scene substances almost equal to that of Rhyme himself, and Ed O’Neill as Detective Paulie Sellitto, a character with the same helter-skelter likability as Mr. O’Neill’s goofy paterfamilias in the long-running television series, Married With Children .

The movie looks and plays better than it might seem from a detailed print plot synopsis. The intricate series of shifting viewpoints endows every occurrence with a dazzling variety of contemplative reactions that enhance and ennoble the characters without the need for fatuous rhetoric. The metaphors of chess and jigsaw puzzles are invoked and exploited both in the dialogue and in the mise en scène . New York comes alive as a luminous abstraction that towers imperturbably over the occasionally insane atrocities buried in its lower depths. The Bone Collector falls apart at the end, however, with an inappropriately optimistic Christmas-cheer wrap-up of a disturbingly pessimistic and pathological package.

These Boys Don’t Cry, Either

Rowan Woods’ The Boys , from a screenplay by Stephen Sewell, based on the play The Boys by Gordon Graham, treats the subject of male malaise with much more gutsy honesty than is to be found in the flippantly fanciful Fight Club . But my readers beware. The Boys is a comparatively austere and elliptical work of art next to the MTV jazziness of Fight Club . The play and the movie were inspired by the real-life rape-murder of a young nurse in Sydney, Australia, by three brothers. The film ends, just before the crime is about to be perpetrated, with the chilling words of Brett Sprague (David Wenham): “Let’s skin her.”

Most of the action takes place on the day and night of Brett’s release on parole from a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon. It is a day and night of Mars-versus-Venus turmoil and conflict within the Sprague household. Brett is embittered because no one in the family came to visit him during the year he was incarcerated. He spreads the poison of suspicion and discontent among everyone around him as he preaches a pseudo-anarchic rant about doing to society what society does to the Spragues.

Mr. Wenham, who played the marvelously malevolent Brett on stage in Sydney, Australia, endows the character with the bile and bite of an Iago biting his two oafish, Othello-like brothers, Glenn and Stevie, until they break up with the two women in their lives, Jackie (Jeanette Cronin) and Nola (Anna Lise). Jackie leaves Glenn when he refuses to stay away from his brothers, and the pregnant waif Nola runs away after Brett starts threatening her for having called the police when Michelle (Toni Collette) screamed while being abused by Brett.

What is particularly menacing about Brett’s words is the calm, reasonable, rational tone he uses to spew his psychic poison. In Michelle, however, he meets his match when she escapes alive after taunting him for being impotent because he “took it up the ass” in prison. The venomous exchanges between Ms. Collette and Mr. Wenham make the verbal duels between the Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey spouses in American Beauty sound like Ozzie and Harriet.

Presiding over the Sprague brood is the mother, Sandra, torn between a fearful love and loyalty and an increasing feeling of horror over what Brett and his impressionable brothers may eventually be capable of doing. The Sprague boys are doomed losers in the game of life, but the filmmakers have elevated them through frequent close-ups to a stature that makes the evil they finally commit tragically inevitable.

Freedom Train

Radu Mihaileanu’s Train of Life has won audience awards at several film festivals, including Venice, São Paulo, Miami, Sundance and, most recently, the Hamptons. Made in France by a Romanian director with generous infusions of Gypsy music, it may raise in many people’s minds the same kinds of questions that have followed Schindler’s List , Life Is Beautiful , Jacob the Liar and other alleged desecrations of the sacred subject of the Holocaust. Train of Life is presented as a cheerful fable on an admittedly apocryphal story about a Russian Jewish village that decorated a train with Nazi swastikas and rode to freedom in Palestine or somewhere equally remote in myth and fantasy.

The treatment here is rife with Yiddish humor, but there’s also a disturbingly bothersome subplot about a Jewish Communist faction in the village that continually questions and threatens the entire enterprise. Since, admittedly, some of the Jews must dress as Nazi officers to bring off the deception, the faux-Nazis are almost immediately insulted and denounced as if they were real Nazis. Even worse, the few real Nazis encountered along the way are presented as buffoons. Ernst Lubitsch pulled off this sort of Jewish gallows humor in To Be or Not to Be (1942), and he was roundly attacked by the critics for his alleged tastelessness. Today, To Be or Not to Be is regarded as a comic masterpiece. Still, Lubitsch in 1942 and Charles Chaplin in 1940 with The Great Dictator were completely unaware of the eventually horrifying dimensions of the Holocaust. The same cannot be said about today’s filmmakers, so I pass on Train of Life .

As for the implication that Jews and Gypsies are united by their shared martyrdom, and thus can constitute one happy tribe, I plead complete ignorance as a precondition of my tentative skepticism.