By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated November 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

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.

Rhymes, then, becomes the Wizard behind Oz’s curtain, Charlie behind his angels, a copycat of Sigourney Weaver in Copycat, stuck at home but calling the shots by radio as Donaghy pokes around gory corpses. (This cop does an awful lot of dangerous work without a partner.) The Bone Collector is ostensibly as much about the developing trust between mentor and student, man and woman, as it is about the horrible ways the killer satisfies his twisted lusts. (The psycho, incidentally, maintains a valid taxi license and picks up his victims in a cab that’s an out-of-towner’s worst nightmare of literally getting ripped off.)

But 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, knows that the only way to sell this stuff (written by Jeremy Iacone from a novel by Jeffery Deaver) is with atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. And he creates an effectively shadowy, decrepit Gotham in which artifacts from the past (the killer makes use of antique objets in his death scenarios) rub against conveniences of the present (Rhymes’ computer-assisted existence is state-of-the-art).

Noyce also 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, including Queen Latifah as his vigilant nurse (given little to do besides beam at her patient), and Michael Rooker, Luis Guzman, and Mike McGlone as fellow cops. Washington even buffets 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. B-

The Bone Collector

  • Movie
  • R
  • 118 minutes
  • Phillip Noyce