The Watcher

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“The Watcher” is a passable, reasonably good serial-killer movie. It has a few clever ideas and some suspenseful moments. There’s really not too much wrong with it.

No, wait. Make all those statements conditional: It WOULD BE passable, it WOULD HAVE some suspenseful moments, there’s WOULDN’T BE too much wrong with it — all if Keanu Reeves HADN’T BEEN cast as the serial killer.

He is nearly the only thing wrong with “The Watcher,” a movie that may not be too different from the thousand or so other serial-killer movies of the last 20 years, but which nonetheless could have been pretty decent for its genre. But Keanu is a man who can barely play regular people convincingly; as a psychotic cold-blooded, cat-and-mouse-game killer, he is extraordinarily unmenacing, unbelievably and even laughably Keanu-esque.

I don’t know what first-time director Joe Charbanic could have been thinking, except that he directed music videos for Keanu’s band, Dogstar, and decided hey, why not put him in this movie he’s doing?

Please understand that while I am among the critics who think Keanu is not a very good actor, that doesn’t mean I won’t give him a fair chance. I was intrigued by the idea of him playing a bad guy; maybe this will be his break-through performance, where he finally connects with his character and gives audiences something to enjoy about him other than his doofy smile and surfer-boy speaking voice.

But no. Doofy smile and surfer-boy speaking voice are firmly in place here — or, more accurately, firmly OUT of place here, keeping you from taking him seriously as a killer for even one second.

It doesn’t help that David Elliot and Clay Ayers’s screenplay gives us nothing about who his character, David Allen Griffin, is. But there is a little something there — some hints about his psychological dependence on FBI agent Joel Campbell (James Spader) chasing him as though the two had a “relationship” — and other actors have made serial killers eerie and threatening with even less character development than that. (See Kevin Spacey in “Seven.”) Keanu takes the morsels of personality the script gives him and ignores them.

So what’s good about the movie? Pretty much everything else. Campbell chased Griffin in L.A. for 3 1/2 years before tragically failing to catch him and allowing someone important to him on a personal level fall victim. He had a breakdown and is on disability now, taking pills right and left to relieve migraines, and seeing a therapist (Marisa Tomei).

He’s also moved to Chicago — where, creepily enough, Griffin has followed him. Seems the killing just wasn’t fun in L.A. without Campbell on the case, so even though Campbell is retired, Griffin is going to drag him back into it. This he does by FedEx-ing photos of random young, single women to Campbell, with the warning that he and the cops have until 9 p.m. to figure out who the woman is and get to her before Griffin does.

That’s an intriguing concept for a movie, especially when one of the chosen victims is a pan-handling homeless woman. People in the big city pay little attention to each other as it is; how much harder is it to find a woman with whom people intentionally avoid eye-contact?

Spader, who usually plays heavies, does fine as the good guy here. He’s not heroic in the traditional sense — he has so many medical and psychological flaws — but he has a nice-guy, youthful look about him that should allow him to play roles like this more often. Chris Ellis as Chicago PD boss Hollis serves nicely, too, for once helping the FBI guy with the case, rather than being an antagonist (which is how these movies usually work).

Granted, Keanu aside, the whole thing does have a “made for USA Network” feel about it, with rather low production values and a number of cliches and a few introduced-then-abandoned possible plot avenues. (By the end of the film Campbell has mysteriously stopped taking his medication, with no tapering off at all.) But it all could have been a reasonable way to spend 90 minutes, being mildly thrilled and mostly entertained. All except for Keanu, who, simply put, ruins any scene he’s in. It’s a fine killer-movie concept that, back to the conditional, COULD HAVE BEEN great, were it not for some horrible mis-casting.

C+ (; R, very frequent harsh profanity, shootings and other violence, some bloody crime scenes, a couple of nude sketches.)

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