Paramount // 2005 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // April 12th, 2005
Well, well, look what we have here. It's another potentially intriguing thriller done in by a pedestrian script and a serious case of style over substance.
Warning: There are spoilers ahead, although I won't be giving away much more than the DVD packaging already does.
After bungling the arrest of a serial killer, FBI Agent Tom Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart, The Core) has been demoted and reassigned to the bureau's minor league Albuquerque branch. He soon begins receiving faxes and packages from Benjamin O'Ryan (Ben Kingsley, Thunderbirds), a former government agent whose telepathic ability -- known as remote viewing -- allows him to enter the minds of killers and their victims. O'Ryan is hunting a man he has dubbed Suspect Zero, an extremely prolific serial killer who is able to crisscross the country without being caught. Mackelway's boss and fellow agents think O'Ryan himself is the mysterious, possibly mythical Suspect Zero, but Mackelway's own mental bond with O'Ryan leads him to believe otherwise.
I remember reading about the buzz surrounding Zak Penn's original script for Suspect Zero several years ago. It wasn't long after the release of Se7en, and Penn's work was being touted as the next great serial killer/suspense film. Tom Cruise's production company purchased the script, with Cruise expressing an interest in starring. Jump forward ten years: Cruise is out as the film's star (although as producer, he did manage to snag a small role for cousin William Mapother (In the Bedroom) and an uncredited bit for Days of Thunder screenwriter Robert Towne), the script has been extensively rewritten (by Volcano scribe Billy Ray) to include a steadfast hero and more standard plot elements, and what was once the hottest thing in town has now become a run-of-the-mill thriller. (Anyone familiar with the details of Last Action Hero will know that Penn's scripts have a history of being ruined by studio mandates and star egos.)
I can understand why the original script was so hot, as the idea of remote viewing could have been the centerpiece of a pretty good film. So what exactly is remote viewing? As presented in this film, it's the ability of certain individuals to "see" events as, or even before, they occur. Remote viewers receive small pieces of information -- shapes, textures, colors, etc. -- that are used piece by piece to form a larger picture, and I mean that literally, as the viewers generally write down and/or sketch the information as they receive it. The viewers also receive information regarding points of longitude and latitude, thereby allowing them to pinpoint the location of the events they are witnessing. I'm a pretty big skeptic, so to me, the idea sounds more than a little far-fetched, but I can see how it could be used as the starting point of a decent film. The problem is that the finished product of Suspect Zero has surrounded this core concept with all of the worn-out plot devices of your basic FBI flick. Remove the remote viewing element from this story, and what you're left with is just another variation on the "FBI agent looking for serial killer" theme we've all seen a thousand times before. Mackelway's been disgraced, and his new assignment gives him an opportunity to redeem himself (seen it). Rich Charlton (Harry Lennix, Collateral Damage), Mackelway's boss, butts heads with Mackelway over the junior agent's methods and his unwavering belief in O'Ryan's innocence (seen it). Fran Kulok (Carrie-Anne Moss, Red Planet), Mackelway's former partner/lover, shows up to join the investigation, and the two start resurrecting their old feelings (seen it).
I don't think anything here will really surprise anyone, unless of course this is the first and only thriller you've seen. In addition to the problems I mentioned above, this film also suffers from a hero who is nowhere near as interesting as the mysterious individual he's communicating with, killers who should easily be caught, and huge lapses in logic. Mackelway is little more than a guy just trying to do his job. Sure, he's cracked some skulls and bent some rules, but so what? He's still the guy we've seen a thousand times before, ex-lover and all. In addition to the man known as Suspect Zero, the film features three more serial killers who are dispatched by O'Ryan, and I couldn't help but wonder why they hadn't already been apprehended. One guy has a collection of body parts stored in his attic, and I'm wondering how his wife has never noticed (not to mention smelled) anything suspicious. Plus, this guy's attic is brightly lit, with windows that provide easy viewing of anything happening inside. Seems to me one of his neighbors would have noticed him playing dress-up with the flayed skins he so dearly loves. The same pretty much holds true for the school teacher who has several of his students buried in his basement, as well as the guy Mackelway was chasing before his demotion. These guys all follow set patterns and, like any good movie serial killer, they're too open and flamboyant in their actions. What's even more ridiculous is Suspect Zero himself. This is a guy who drives a huge, jet black tractor trailer through residential neighborhoods when he's prowling for victims (he's killed at least fifty people). I can't speak for anyone else, but if a huge, jet black truck comes creeping down my street, in full-on daylight no less, I'm pretty sure I'm going to notice.
Also, several questions go unanswered in the film: How does O'Ryan sneak into the FBI office and leave a note in Mackelway's jacket? How does O'Ryan get into the backseat of his first target's car? How does Mackelway get into that Oklahoma halfway house in the middle of the night? Where are all of the residents we saw earlier? How exactly does O'Ryan get in and rig up that projector in the basement of said halfway house, and how does he manage to start the film while he's miles away in his hotel room? Still on the subject of the halfway house, was O'Ryan really able to draw the faces of numerous murder victims all over a wall without anyone noticing or becoming suspicious? Why doesn't O'Ryan, who apparently can see into the future, stop these crimes before they occur? Why can't he simply remote view the license plate of Suspect Zero's truck? How does O'Ryan earn a living? Is he on a government pension? At the film's climax, when Mackelway and O'Ryan have chased Suspect Zero out into the middle of nowhere, how is Kulok able to get to them less than two minutes after Mackelway calls in for backup? Why is she the only agent who shows up? How does Suspect Zero not know the road his house is on has a dead end? That doesn't seem like the sort of thing a truck driver would miss, does it? How many questions is that? Should we move on?
It's obvious director E. Elias Merhige (Shadow of the Vampire) was concentrating on mood and tension over logic with this film (he states as much in his commentary), but for me, it doesn't work (and I'm someone who will defend Brian De Palma for the same crime). Merhige chooses odd camera angles, employs a variety of lenses and filters, and, on occasion, uses fragmented editing in an attempt to convey a sense of evil and dread, but his technique does little more than call attention to itself. He also errs by allowing the pace to lag for most of the film, and the two car chases he (unwisely) drops into the third act are both poorly staged and edited. (It's bad enough that he rips off the climax of Se7en, but he goes entirely too far when he starts stealing from Duel). At several points, Merhige cheats by forcing camera angles, such as the moment near the end when Suspect Zero comes out of nowhere and attacks Mackelway; considering that they're standing on top of a barren mesa, there would be nowhere for Zero to hide, unless of course he was hiding behind the camera.
As is to be expected, Ben Kingsley's performance here is exceptional, and it's easily the best thing in the film. Both Aaron Eckhart and Carrie-Anne Moss are more than a little bland, although I'm sure that's due in large part to the roles with which they're saddled (Moss's character serves no purpose in the story, and, at times, Moss appears to know this). Harry Lennix turns in a good performance, making the most of his stock character. Finally, Frank Collison (the guy who played Wash in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) makes a brief (too brief) appearance. Cast this guy in the Eckhart role, and you might really end up with something.
Suspect Zero arrives on DVD sporting a pretty good transfer. It's quite grainy in spots, and colors are sometimes muted, but this look is intentional. Details come through nicely, and black levels are quite good, but a couple of source-print nicks and scratches are evident. The audio, on the other hand, is fantastic, with outstanding immersion, excellent surround use, a wide soundstage, clear dialogue, and some very deep bass. Extras include a trailer, footage of director Merhige's own attempt at remote viewing, and an alternate ending. As well, a featurette about remote viewing deals primarily with the government's purported use of remote viewers but also features scientists who have researched the phenomenon. (The featurette attempts a hard sell on its subject, but I'm still not buying.) Lastly, there's a commentary from director Merhige, and this is undoubtedly one of the worst commentaries I've ever heard. Much of the time, Merhige seems to be reading from notes prepared beforehand, and all of the time, he comes across as a dour, pretentious, self-congratulatory bore. He also appears to be under the impression that he alone is responsible for the film, as he never mentions the script and almost never mentions the cast. Well, if he thinks the film is his and his alone, then he's more then welcome to bear the burden for its ultimate failure.
I couldn't possibly recommend a purchase of this disc, although both the central idea and Ben Kingsley's work almost make it worth a look. If you're at all interested in seeing Suspect Zero, I'd save it for one of those days when you're desperate for something to rent.
Everyone is free to go, with the exception of E. Elias Merhige, who is found guilty of pretentiousness and of squandering the talent he exhibited with his vampire film. Besides, he was pretty much asking for it.
Review content copyright © 2005 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* "What We See When We Close Our Eyes" Featurette
* Remote Viewing Demonstration
* Alternate Ending with Optional Commentary
* Internet Trailer
* Official Site