Cast against type as a serial killer who terrorizes Chicago in "The Watcher," Keanu Reeves relies on the familiar skills he's utilized in nearly every one of his big-screen outings, from his commercial breakthrough 11 years ago in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to last year's blockbuster The Matrix and the recent The Replacements. The blank stare is in place, all right, accompanied by the familiar, ever-flat line delivery. His voice remains a droning monotone, not unlike the sound emitted by his part-time rock project, Dogstar.
Another actor -- John Malkovich, say, or Gary Oldman -- might employ a similar approach to scare audiences out of their socks. Perhaps because of his shaggy-slacker demeanor, Reeves inspires another reaction altogether: snickering. That's the response that was heard at a recent screening, as a scene unfolded in which elusive murderer Davis Allen Griffin (Reeves) finally comes face-to-face with Joel Campbell (James Spader), the FBI agent who's determined to catch the fiend.
"You're a good friend," Griffin tells Campbell in an exchange that's intended to be among the film's creepiest passages. "You're like a brother to me." Cue laughter.
First-time director Joe Charbanic and screenwriters David Elliot ("Nothing Sacred") and Clay Ayers attempt to make much of a supposed symbiotic relationship between the lawman and his quarry. Before relocating to the Windy City, we learn, Campbell, unsuccessfully pursued Griffin in Los Angeles. After his own lover was murdered, the burned-out, guilt-wracked, overmedicated homicide investigator split Southern California to escape the bad memories.
He's been followed to the Midwest by his worst nightmare, a guy whose preferred m.o. is to stalk a young woman for days on end, sneak inside her home, wait until she returns from work and then strangle her with piano wire. "The Watcher" offers several views of the aftermath of those murders, and they aren't pleasant sights to behold. Then again, grisly crime scenes don't offer much in the way of shock value when they're routinely displayed on "Homicide," "Law and Order" and other network-TV dramas.
Borrowing a plot device from The Cell, The Bone Collector, "Seven" and who-knows-how-many previous thrillers, Charbanic has his serial killer drop clues about the identity of his next victim, secretly seeking to be caught as his pursuer desperately races against the clock. This time, there are several races, with Campbell and his colleagues attempting to intercept the young women whose photographs have been overnighted to them by the murderer, announcing them as his latest prey.
Spader ("Crash," "Stargate") is suitably frayed around the edges as the driven Campbell, and he offers some convincing chemistry with Marisa Tomei (Slums of Beverly Hills, "My Cousin Vinny"), whose Polly -- a therapist who's helping the agent to work through his problems -- is the movie's designated damsel-in-distress.
Campbell also suffers severe migraine headaches, stress-induced attacks that are visually represented by annoying, flashbulblike effects that temporarily freeze the onscreen motion. Similarly irksome are sequences shot from the killer's point of view -- grainy textures, muted colors, eerie lighting and all. Weren't we subjected to this technique more than often enough during the glory days of slasher movies? Not according to Charbanic.