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Saturday, Feb. 3, 2001

'THE WATCHER'

Every faulty step you take . . .


Now you see the great Keanu Reeves, now you don't.

The man is slippery, elusive, different from film to film. In "Speed" he's so cute you're ready to volunteer your services as one of the hostages on that bus. And then in "Chain Reaction," he's suddenly gained 10 kg and is always pushing greasy strands of hair away from his face. In "The Matrix," he's fabulously cool once more, with an ultra-snazzy crew cut that makes blond-locked men look ridiculous in comparison.

The point is, unlike say Tom Cruise and Hugh Grant, Keanu Reeves seems not to care if he's a Greek god in one picture and a slob in another. Consistency, quality control, a permanent brand image -- obviously, these things are not high on his agenda. After all, this is a guy who once said in an interview: "In life, I only care about things that begin with the letter 'f.' You know, food, fighting . . . " You guess the rest.

Keanu's latest is "The Watcher." Judging from the ad posters that show him in a loose-fitting ensemble with long hair, odds are that he's gained back the weight he shed for "The Matrix" and not likely to fly through the air while performing elegant kung fu maneuvers.

"The Watcher" will immediately confirm your suspicions. Not only is he plumper and more ponderous, in this vehicle he's not even the good guy. He's a serial killer who strangles young women and sets police cars on fire, looking terribly bored and lethargic the whole time. Some critics in the U.S. dubbed him "the most beautiful psycho killer in cinema history," but I believe the Hollywood Association of Serial Killers would move to dispute that.

Griffin (Reeves) is a homicidal maniac in L.A. with a penchant for young, lonely women. He first "watches" their daily routine, then hits at a time when they are least on guard (6 a.m., before the morning shower) and strikes. His signature weapon is piano wire.

The FBI can't track him down, but Griffin keeps tabs on the actions of one particular agent, Campbell (James Spader). Knowing this, Campbell tries to close in on Griffin, but he's always a step too late. After what seems like an eternal game of weak cat and super-mouse, Griffin finally pushes Campbell over the edge (but I won't divulge how). Broken and suicidal, Campbell takes a leave of absence and heads for Chicago.

Characteristically, Griffin follows him out and lures him back to investigative activity. "This time, I'll make it easier for you," he tells him by phone and sends him photos of the next victims -- nameless women who could be anywhere in the Chicago area. Campbell decides it's now or never: He will nail Griffin even if he dies doing it.

While the Chicago TV stations launch a full-scale campaign in which the public is asked to identify the photos and warn the intended victims, Campbell and his team work around the clock, searching for clues and mistakes overlooked by Griffin. But in a wrenching sequence (par for the serial-killer movie course), three girls lose their lives before Campbell is wounded on duty. While lying in the hospital, he's contacted by Griffin and the two finally meet, slowing walking toward each other like gunmen at the O.K. Corral.

This is MTV director Joe Charbanic's feature debut, and true to his trade, he certainly knows how to get the most visual effects from the least number of frames. "The Watcher" is highly stylized and enshrouded in darkness -- practically no daytime shots, and even police headquarters are lit with an eerie, murky light. Griffin appears only at night or daybreak, hunched into a black leather jacket and staring down at his quarries like they owe him a favor.

The visual kicks, however, fall short of compensating for the story, which could be a lot more interesting than it pretends to be. Griffin's obsession with Campbell obviously has homosexual overtones (lines like "You can't live without me, admit it" and "We're the same person, but on different sides. Like yin and yang"). Among all the watching Griffin does, he watches Campbell most of all and even knows in advance what Campbell will order at his neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant.

Instead of developing this side of the picture, Charbanic switches to the usual crime-action formula, with hero and villain locked in desperate combat, a bomb ticking away somewhere on the premises while S.W.A.T. teams take their sweet time scaling walls, flying choppers, pounding repeatedly at the wrong doors.

Perhaps this is what Keanu wanted. Forget the psychology. Let's just fight, fight, fight.

"The Watcher" opens Feb. 3 at Togeki in Ginza and other theaters.


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