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Jeffery Deaver’s novel about a paralyzed, suicidal New York cop, his gorgeous rookie assistant, and a psychotic with a historical bent is a classic among procedural mysteries. The hero, Lincoln Rhyme, is the author of the world’s foremost forensic textbook, Scene of the Crime, and Deaver’s novel even includes a glossary lifted from this fictional book-within-a-book. Rhyme’s knowledge comes in handy while he directs a multiple-murder investigation from his sickbed, his apartment buzzing with an amiable crowd of specialists and state-of-the-art equipment that may or may not really exist. Every grain of sand, possible print, speck of dust, hair, and scrap of paper gets scanned through elaborate machines while Rhyme’s only fully working part—his brain—tries to make sense of what it all means before the killer strikes again.
The book is enormously fun, its forensic angle fascinating. It’s a terrific candidate for a big-screen adaptation, combining the whistling-past-the-graveyard banter of pressured experts working in swinging tandem with nail-biting crime-scene grunts with a tale of murderous excess that even the darkest nightmares of Seven don’t explore. Director Phillip Noyce has done a classy, workmanlike job of making the transition, but he front-loads the story by drawing out the first murder early—and then derails it, sending in the requisite unimaginative police chief to literally pull the plug on Rhyme’s operation.
I hope never to see another movie with a “You’re off the case” moment—it louses up the momentum. In the film version of The Bone Collector, everything comes to a screeching halt when the tight-ass police superior (Michael Rooker) sends all the equipment home (and with no good reason—there isn’t even another case that is more politically useful for the police to solve), because, even when played with wit and admirable stubbornness by Denzel Washington, Rhyme has to carry the film flat on his back and immobile.
Still, The Bone Collector is pretty great hokum, lovely to look at, suspenseful, and executed by actors who embody the vengeful flair of righteous and outrageously talented cops. Observed by his wry nurse, Thelma (Queen Latifah), Rhyme makes arrangements to have his own plug pulled. But he immediately gets word of the grisly murder of a local industrialist and of the impressive forensic instincts of a tough-talking rookie and former model, Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie; it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t pretend the tough-talking rookie couldn’t have modeled).
It seems she stopped a train from ploughing over some crime-scene evidence. From the debris—deliberately planted at the scene—Rhyme concludes that the victim’s wife is alive but in danger, and he gets the idea that Amelia can be his eyes and ears at the next site. Each crime scene leads to another, but none of them indicate who the murderer might be, since he knows Rhyme’s book as well as the author himself. It’s an evenly matched game of cat-and-mouse in which both principals use the same set of microlevel weapons.
The script is full of smart-mouthed banter and has a dazzling self-assurance. Noyce knows it’s funny when a studly cop explains to Jolie, outfitted in Kevlar and weaponry, that his therapist thinks it’s time to move on if she won’t make a commitment. He understands the erotic potential of Rhyme’s stilled body; when a fascinated Amelia runs her hand over his one working finger, it’s kind of gross and kind of sexy. (Rhyme’s race is not referred to in the novel, and it doesn’t matter in the film, except insofar as it’s another example of the felled strong black man rendered impotent for his intimacy with a vulnerable white woman.) The role of Thelma will not rewrite the concept of the loving but no-nonsense caretaker, but as filled by Queen Latifah—is there a more genial or confident presence onscreen?—she’s not just his nurse, but Rhyme’s soul in motion. Too bad Noyce bungles her fate.
The killer, apparently, drives a cab, with a nasty little plastic monkey lynched from the rearview mirror. He picks up his victims and dispatches them in fiendishly baroque ways, all of which hark back to turn-of-the-century New York. The assumption is that he’s either a cop or known by cops—could he be someone we’ve already met?—and his specialized interest in local history and the forensic possibilities of mundane objects puts him in the category of detective doppelganger, the villain who has similar talents to those of the detective whose dark urges he incarnates. This is a spurious but hallowed narrative device, and not quite Deaver’s original. (Note to fans of the book: Expect the unexpected.) Noyce shows us the killer in action, but he doesn’t argue for the killer’s attention to detail: The sites that Amelia discovers, furnished with no clues except those the killer has planted, are not the work of the sloppy man with the bad explanation who breaks into Rhyme’s apartment for the spectacularly disgusting climax.
Because the film lingers over its beginning, it gives short shrift to the subsequent murders and its own potentially best parts: Rhyme’s crack team puzzling over the details. Condensation also pares down subplots into half-baked attempts at symbolism (the peregrine falcon that nests outside Rhyme’s window) and psychology (Amelia’s dad, a cop suicide; Rhyme’s estranged sister). But these are quibbles from someone too familiar with the original text; for the most part, The Bone Collector does everything right. The dialogue is witty but realistic, the interiors lushly photographed, and the thrills creepy enough for a jaded modern audience. Even Amelia’s roving flashlight, often the only illumination in long scenes, does in microcosm what Noyce does on a wider scale: It shows exactly what we need to see. CP