IN MY last job at The Post, I had to attend meetings instead of movie screenings, suggesting book titles like "Ten Days to a Better Butt" for possible author interviews. Needless to say, most of my ideas were met with withering silence.
Until the spring of 1997 -- when Jeffery Deaver came out with "The Bone Collector" (now a major motion picture starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie). One of the assignment editors had happened to read Deaver's creepy cop thriller over the weekend and sold her normally jaded colleagues on the idea of a profile by breathlessly announcing that she hadn't "been able to put it down."
I, on the other hand, have no such compunctions about the film.
Oh, simmer down now.
I'm not about to trash this perfectly adequate little nail-biter from director Phillip Noyce and screenwriter Jeremy Iacone about a quadriplegic detective (Washington) and his pillow-lipped protege (Jolie) on the trail of a diabolical, taxi-driving serial killer (I can't identify him or her, now can I?). As Lincoln Rhyme, a police forensics genius confined to a high-tech sickbed after a disabling on-the-job accident, Washington is, as usual, simply marvelous.
Since his character is unable to move from the neck down -- except for one finger, with which he manipulates the button that controls an apartment full of computer gadgetry -- all of Washington's acting is confined to his subtly expressive face. With nothing more than a smile and a pair of intelligent brown eyes, the actor portrays a sly invalid whose sexiness comes from between his ears not his legs, even as he alternates between gallows humor and desperation over his physical predicament.
Jolie plays Amelia Donaghy, the tough New York City beat cop whose quick thinking and eye for detail after stumbling upon a grisly murder scene earn her Rhyme's respect and a role as his reluctant eyes and ears in the field investigation. Believe it or not, the striking actress actually carries off the cop swagger and the police-blue jumpsuit she has to wear pretty well, once you can get past staring at that pouty mackerel mouth of hers. There's also some genuine heat as her relationship with Rhyme moves from the professional to the personal.
Even Ed O'Neill, stripped of his "Married . . . With Children" and 1-800-COLLECT doofus mannerisms, nicely carries off the no-nonsense role of Rhyme's doughty former partner, Detective Paulie Sellitto.
What's ludicrous about the movie is the actual bad guy (or the "perp" or "doer," as they're fond of saying in police lingo). Sure, this Martha Stewart of manslaughter -- who enjoys nothing better than staging a pretty little crime scene with delightful centerpieces constructed from bone, hair and cryptic scraps of paper from the turn of the century -- is no more ridiculous than the clue-crazy killer in "Seven" (a movie with numerous parallels to this one).
There wouldn't be much of a story if the butcher actually tried to hide his handiwork, instead of flaunting it like some Broadway choreographer, now would there? The flamboyant assassin is a convention of the genre, one that even curmudgeons like me can learn to stomach, along with the incongruous fact that no one seems to be able to get this cockamamie cabbie's hack number, despite the fact that he bludgeons a kid with a flashlight and shoots a transit cop in the chest . . . in broad daylight!
It's not until the conclusion that credulity really starts to buckle under the strain of "The Bone Collector's" Grand Guignol-style showdown between the hunter and the hunted. (What, you expected the denouement to unravel, as it most often does in real life, in an unglamorous pile of police paperwork?)
When all is said and done, "The Bone Collector" delivers a tall, gory tale about as spellbinding as this sort of hooey comes, thanks more to the firm footing of Washington and his co-star Jolie than to the tenuous grip on reality manifested by its earnest but cliche-minded makers.
THE BONE COLLECTOR (R, 118 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, bloody corpses and icky rats. Area theaters.