Suspect Zero

on August 27, 2004 by Ray Greene
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Since "Silence of the Lambs" was released in 1991, it is entirely possible that there have been more serial killer movies made in America than there have been American serial killers. This is due in part to the "monkey-do" nature of Hollywood, where nothing succeeds like an imitation of somebody else's success. But perhaps the most credible explanation for the perseverance of the "serial killer" genre is that it's an inherently undemanding vessel for formulaic filmmaking. Even the worst "serial killer" flick will have a random act of violence every 15 or so minutes and a manhunt component. Remove serial killers from the discussion and that's a primal description for about 70 percent of all non-comedic contemporary entertainment. Serial killers make the dramatist's job easy, and so they proliferate as a dramatic device, hacking away onscreen in a direct corollary to the hacking away on keyboards of the hackneyed hacks who vivify them.

With the release of "Suspect Zero," the snake has officially eaten its own tail. The laziest and least inspiring of movie genres has gone self-referential, offering up a serial killer of (wait for it) serial killers. Ben Kingsely is Benjamin O'Ryan, a scarred veteran of a shady government program created to locate and train agents with extra-sensory abilities. O'Ryan's paranormal beat was serial killers, and his gift allows him to get into the minds of both killers and victims, trapping him over time in an unending hallucinatory horror-show that has left him deranged and insomniac. O'Ryan has developed a fix on maverick F.B.I. agent Thomas Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart), a man O'Ryan suspects has similar telepathic capacities. Using his strange abilities, O'Ryan begins tracking down and taking out serial murderers, all the while baiting Mackelway and closing in on the most prolific serial killer of them all, the elusive "suspect zero..."

"Lambs" novelist Thomas Harris has been working the idea of a mental linkage between serial murderers and the cops who track them for decades. Screenwriters Zak Penn and Billy Ray still get a few points on the originality meter for literalizing the metaphor by creating a Vulcan mindmeld between Kingsley, Eckhart, and the various unsavories from central casting they pursue. Director E. Elias Merhige ("Shadow of the Vampire") attacks the surreal elements of the story with the misguided enthusiasm of a freshman film student who has just seen "Un Chien Andalou" (and "Seven") for the first time. Merhige uses Kingsely's pathologies to weave lengthy and fragmented art-school visions that are meant to be stylish and riveting but which are so overcooked they are less abstractions than distractions. Even a ludicrous cinematic clue left by Kingsley for Eckhart to discover is so snazzily edited and elliptical it's as if Eckhart were trying to capture Maya Deren or Jean-Luc Godard instead of a rogue cop. After awhile, it's possible to wish the little drowned girl from "The Ring" would climb up out of all the canted angles and delirious narrative imagery, the way she did in her movie, and suck out someone's soul or something. At least that way there'd be some intelligible action.

As O'Ryan, Kingsley is his usual fine self, conveying depths of emotion and torment only suggested by the script; as Mackelway, Eckhart continues to have a very cleft chin. In underwritten supporting roles, "Matrix" actors Carrie-Anne Moss and Harry Lennix do what they can. Moss is, as usual, luminous and expressive and underutilized, while Lennix, who was so brilliant and Shakespearean in "Titus" five years ago, simply can't make much out of yet another spluttering boss cop whose sole function is to yell at and undermine his subordinates.

Audiences who like to sit through the credits of movies will be rewarded in this case with clear indications of a troubled history. "Suspect Zero" not only has a credit for "additional editing" buried deep in the bowels of its end titles, but also one for "additional music." Unfortunately, and despite the small spark of originality in its central premise, viewers will search both the titles and the film "Suspect Zero" itself for "additional ideas" in vain. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss and Harry Lennix. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. Written by Zak Penn and Billy Ray. Produced by Paula Wagner, E. Elias Merhige and Gaye Hirsch. A Paramount release. Thriller. Rated R for violent content, language and some nudity. Running time: 100 min

Tags: Starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Kingsley, Carrie-Anne Moss, Harry Lennix. Directed by E. Elias Merhige. Written by Zak Penn and Billy Ray, Produced by Paula Wagner, E. Elias Merhige, Gaye Hirsch, Paramount, Thriller
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