The Bone Collector (1999) **½
The seismic success of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 sent a curious pattern of ripples throughout the movie industry. In its wake, the police procedural detective story learned a startling new trick. Whereas before, such films had been primarily a species of murder mystery or a vehicle for right-wing revenge fantasies, the post-Silence of the Lambs police procedural was more likely to be a horror movie aimed at people who thought horror movies were beneath them. Oh, they didn’t call it horror, of course— that would have given the game away. No, these were “thrillers” or “suspense” films or some such thing, but let’s be serious for a moment. You make a movie in which the villain goes around forcing people to carve out their own love-handles, or to fuck hookers to death with strap-on dildos built like glaive-guisarmes, and it doesn’t matter what you want to call it. You could say it’s a public service announcement about the dangers of overcharging your clients and patronizing brothels for all I care, but it would still be a fucking horror movie. Playing coy with the genre tags can’t protect you from the law of diminishing returns, either. Some of the movies that were created to ride Hannibal Lecter’s coattails turned out quite well (and at least one— David Fincher’s Seven— was nearly as brilliant as its inspiration), but most of the copying yielded far less respectable results, just like it had in the slasher, zombie, and diabolica subgenres in years past. By the time The Bone Collector rolled around in 1999, the whole enterprise was starting to look like a job for Luigi Cozzi or Lamberto Bava. The Bone Collector is a bit better than that makes it sound, at least, but only because director Phillip Noyce had both a decent cast and some money to spend. Nobody was ever going to mistake this movie for anything more than a competently staged rip-off.
Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington, of Virtuosity) might just be the hardest-working man in the New York Police Department. A high-ranking detective with the force’s crime scene investigation division, Rhyme also writes books, lectures at the academy, dispenses expert testimony at trials both civil and criminal, and obsessively collects information of all sorts for entry into the vast and ever-growing database he uses to help him interpret every imaginable variety of clue. As the foregoing suggests, Rhyme has a reputation as a genius of forensic analysis, and it’s probably little or no exaggeration. But one lousy turn of luck nearly puts an end to his illustrious career, for he is crushed beneath falling debris while coming to the aid of a beat cop who was shot down inside the entrance to a decaying 19th-century subway tunnel. Rhyme survives, but the accident leaves him unable to move anything below his shoulders save his left index finger. What might be worse yet, he also becomes subject to recurring cardiovascular seizures that threaten to reduce him to a persistent vegetative state. Without the close attention of Dr. Barry Lehman (John Benjamin Hickey, from The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising), medical techie Richard Thompson (Leland Orser, of Lifeform and the 1995 Piranha), and Thelma, his live-in nurse (Sphere’s Queen Latifah), Rhyme wouldn’t stand a chance.
Four years later, politician Alan Rubin (Gary Swanson) and his wife, Lindsay (Olivia Birkelund), hail exactly the wrong taxi from the airport. Their driver is a serial killer with a history fixation, a flair for the theatrical, and an overpowering need to prove himself smarter than the law, and he kills Alan before turning Lindsay into the centerpiece of a macabre challenge to the police. Alan’s body turns up buried in an old subway tunnel (it looks like the same one where Rhyme was crippled), with just his right hand sticking up above the gravel. His index finger has been flensed to the bone and adorned with Lindsay’s wedding ring. The first cop on the scene is Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie, from Cyborg 2 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), a uniformed officer with the youth offenders division. Donaghy doesn’t see this sort of thing very often in her line of work, but her response shows the makings of a great detective. She enlists a neighborhood kid to fetch her a disposable camera from the nearest drugstore, then begins photographing the scene with a thoroughness that even Lincoln Rhyme might admire. She even flags an oncoming train to a halt when she notices something important-looking on the tracks, and though she catches hell for it from Captain Howard Cheney (Michael Rooker, of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Dark Half), the evidence preserved by that drastic action turns out to be much more important than anything on or about the body itself. Knowing there’s something funny going on here, the detectives who take over the case— Paulie Sellitto (Ed O’Neill, best remembered as Al Bundy on “Married with Children”) and Kenny Solomon (Mike McGlone)— take Donaghy’s report and crime-scene photos along on a visit to Rhyme’s apartment. And yes— Rhyme does indeed admire Donaghy’s thoroughness. At first, he is inclined to dismiss the abduction-murder as a run-of-the-mill ransom case, but the odd collection of objects the perpetrator left on the tracks changes his mind. Putting the missing woman’s ring on her dead husband’s finger is pretty plainly meant to convey that the killer is holding onto her for something (as he would do if he intended to ransom her), but what to make of an asbestos-caked hex-bolt, some cryptic scraps of antique paper, and a pile of strangely pearlescent sand? It isn’t the sort of puzzle that Rhyme can hope to solve unaided from his flat, so he decides to call in a little backup— and what better backup than the enterprising young beat cop who secured the crime scene in the first place? At first, Donaghy is none too happy about being drafted into service as Rhyme’s arms, legs, and eyes in the field, but the master detective significantly outranks her, and there isn’t much she can do about it except bitch. Also, there is, in all probability, a life at stake. With Eddie Ortiz (Innocent Blood’s Luiz Guzman), his mobile crime lab, and two naturally gifted brains’ worth of top-shelf sleuthing, Rhyme and the gang are able to trace Lindsay Rubin to a set of century-old utility tunnels filled with asbestos-coated steam mains. And if they can’t get to Lindsay by 4:30 PM on the day they make their big breakthrough, one of those mains is going to steam-cook her like a ballpark hotdog. This being still the first act of the movie, it’s pretty much only to be expected that the cops fail to save her, and get left with nothing to show for their efforts but another collection of weird-ass clues essentially daring them to find yet a third victim.
This time, Rhyme has Donaghy do the complete CSI job herself— rather to her horror, given that one of the things Rhyme wants is the shackles that were used to restrain Mrs. Rubin in front of the steam-pipe, and that the only way to get them is to saw off the dead woman’s hands. That’s significantly more than Donaghy is prepared to do (she angrily leaves it to the medical examiners instead), but she nevertheless gathers enough evidence from the site to give Rhyme a fighting chance at foiling whatever the bad guy has planned for his next performance. Again Rhyme, Donaghy, and the others figure out the meaning of the killer’s hints just a little too late for it to do the victim any good, and again there’s a new evidentiary puzzle waiting for them beside the corpse. Unfortunately, Captain Cheney has ideas of his own about how to proceed from there. Viewing Rhyme’s handling of the case thus far (especially the part about bringing in Donaghy) as a challenge to his authority, Cheney takes over, disbanding Rhyme’s ad hoc unit and sequestering all the evidence Donaghy has gathered. Dullard that he is, Cheney interprets that evidence in the shallowest possible manner, and he makes an ass of himself and his department by leading a SWAT team to bust what turns out to be the dead body of victim number four. That little performance motivates both Rhyme and Donaghy to take matters into their own hands. Taking advantage of Cheney’s carelessness in not doing the proper evidence-custody paperwork, Donaghy checks out everything relevant to the case on her own authority, and brings it to Rhyme. This time, the clues lead to the discovery of a World War I-vintage true-crime book, which the killer has apparently been using for inspiration. Perusing the last chapter of the book enables Donaghy to predict the general pattern of the next crime, with enough lead-time to rescue one of the two victims. But although there are no more murders left to copy in the old book, that doesn’t mean the killer is finished— and if Donaghy is reading the newest set of hints right, he’s about to come gunning for Lincoln Rhyme.
So let’s take a little inventory here. Brilliant but inexperienced female detective working under the guidance of a genius who is incapable of leaving his room? Politicking assbag who cares more about securing his bureaucratic turf than he does about bringing the killer to justice, and who fucks up everything he pokes his nose into at every turn? A third act in which the heroine is the only one who knows enough to effect a rescue, but has been inconveniently stripped of the authority to do so? Sounds a fucking lot like The Silence of the Lambs, doesn’t it? Now how about a killer whose thematically unified crimes are designed to prove some cracked sort of point, and who plants enough cryptic clues at the scene of each murder to steer the cops on toward the next? Or a fingerprint that leads the police on a wild goose chase, culminating in a SWAT team raid on the place where the villain has stashed one of his victims? Yeah, that’s pretty much Seven all over again. Hero is a black cop, played by an actor whose reputation would, in previous decades, have put him beyond the reach of most movies about serial killers? Also Seven— and Kiss the Girls, too, for that matter. For heaven’s sake, this flick even has the unabashed moxie to copy frigging Copycat! Sure, in comparison to most movies that don’t have a single original idea in their heads, The Bone Collector looks pretty damn good. Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie (the latter of whom hadn’t really become Angelina Jolie yet, if you know what I mean) both put in great performances, and even Queen Latifah makes a strong showing for herself. Meanwhile, Ed O’Neill and Luis Guzman do the character actor thing with all their usual gusto. The murders themselves are admirably nasty, and it isn’t often that you get to see a quadriplegic in a knockdown-dragout fight. The trouble is, everything else here you see a whole awful lot, and The Bone Collector is too busy hitting all the expected beats to establish any personality of its own.