The wily serial killer who leaves fetishistic clues is a regular player in murder mysteries. But a bloodthirsty audience turned on by ”The Silence of the Lambs” and aroused by ”Seven” has encouraged moviemakers to dream up even more baroquely gruesome calling cards; sadism has become its own mainstream art form. In The Bone Collector, a skeleton-thin thriller wrapped in glamorous production values, the murderer creatively terrorizes his victims before offing them, then removes an osteological souvenir – a bit of arm or thigh or finger – as his trademark.
This is a sicko proud of his craftsmanship, operating in the dark tunnels and alleys of a menacing New York City (how ’70s!). Unfortunately – ironically – the one detective who can make the cleverest sense of the puzzle can’t move his own bones: Lincoln Rhymes (Denzel Washington), paralyzed in an accident from the neck down (except for a right index finger that can click a computer button) and prone to seizures that threaten to short-circuit his brain, lies inert, planning his own suicide. Still, he’s intrigued enough by the case to oversee it from his bed – and intrigued, too, by the forensic aptitude and attractive bad-girl attitude of Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie), a tetchy cop with an exceptional eye for evidence gathering. And just exceptional eyes, period.
Director Phillip Noyce, who made the sharply creepy thriller ”Dead Calm” – thereby launching Nicole Kidman’s career – before specializing in the creepy paranoia of Tom Clancy movies, seems to know that Washington is capable of stirring intensity when inspired and distancing containment when not – and pulls from him a lively, engaged performance. Indeed, without moving a limb, the actor conveys such a full-blooded conviction about this very average mystery that he carries along everyone he works with – even buffeting the wilder, less-focused theatrical mood swings of costar Jolie, somewhat panicky in her first big-picture star vehicle – and helps give the under-established character of Donaghy an approximation of personality. This actorly passion may not breathe life into an exhausted genre movie, but it gives ”The Bone Collector” some unexpected spine.