In both "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Bone Collector" an attractive young police agent faces a caged man who will ultimately become her intellectual mentor, her father, her fantasy lover and her liberator.
The difference is that the cage in "Silence of the Lambs" is a maximum security cell containing a brilliant monster and the cage in "Bone Collector" is a vegetative body containing a brilliant detective. Oh, and another difference: "The Silence of the Lambs" is a great movie and "The Bone Collector" is only pretty good.
In fact, its least impressive aspect is just what I've indicated: You can feel the blueprint of the greater movie underneath it, being subtly rewired and rearranged almost, but not quite, to the point of unrecognizability. The first is the original, the second a third- or fourth-generation version.
Derived from Jeffery Deaver's novel of the same name, it (like "Silence") is basically the story of an apprenticeship hidden under the outer garments of a serial-killer mystery. The dynamic but bedridden detective is named Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington), a legendary NYPD crime scene analyst whose spine and central nervous system were destroyed in an accident, rendering him quadriplegic. Angelina Jolie is Amelia Donaghy, a rookie officer with what appears to be unusually good instincts for forensics.
It's her initial instinct that sets up the case. She flags down a commuter train to prevent its vibrations from upsetting the delicacy of a crime scene. A hand protrudes from the rail bed gravel; not only is it connected to the buried corpse of a millionaire but, more interestingly, it also has been pruned of a single offending digit. More interestingly still, a provocative still life of clues, like a child's science project, has been set up close by. Why, the case is so devilish only the great Lincoln Rhyme can solve it, and it doesn't take him long to settle on Jolie's Amelia as his number one assistant.
Hmmm, I wonder if Rhyme really believes Amelia has exquisite talents or if he just likes her lower lip. And who could blame him? It could be the lip that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium. It could be a lip to die for or fight for or lose weight for. Well, maybe not that great.
Meanwhile, when you can stop staring at that lip and get back to the movie, strangenesses are occurring, few of them having to do with the plot. The oddest of these is that the film becomes an extended study of Lincoln's attempts to win Amelia over with tough love, by forcing her to the scene of more atrocities where she must confront the victim alone and in the dark as he coos into her ear by microphone from the bed in his apartment. Definitely creepy, giving a weird sexual undercurrent to their relationship and intensified by the pleasure he seems to take in her degradation. It's a funny way to get a date.
It's also an odd way to build a suspense scene, though David Fincher did the same trick in "Seven," another inspiration to "Bone" director Phillip Noyce. It's not that something is about to happen. We know it's already happened. What puckers us up is the fact that we're just about to see, like poor Amelia, some poor victim with a face melted off by steam blast or munched to death by rats.
As for the mystery that these forays into the shocking are meant to penetrate, it's probably the least interesting thing in the movie. Yet again we have a recondite sociopath who constructs his crime scenes like a postmodern novelist, leaving semiotic traces that can be decoded only by the most refined of sensibilities. The murder is text, the detective is a linguistics scholar with a badge putting it all back together again to form a narrative that will lead to the killer, through the conduit of old pulp fictions, maps, blueprints and anthropological references. We know this monster well: He's a descendant of Moriarty by way of Lecter, with a little of the villain in Borges' "Death and the Compass" thrown in.
All this is romantic crap, of course, for such people tend not be very witty at all, but merely low-grade morons with the mid-brains of the typical wolf spider. Hannibal Lecter at least had good taste in wine and music; this guy--you can guess him early simply by applying the ancient criterion of what-actor-with-a-recognizable-face-has-a-surprisingly-small-role-in-the-story?--isn't very interesting, his motive hardly convincing, his crimes improbable, his crime scenes so secure he can work on the table settings with the passion of a Mr. and Mrs. Tina Brown setting up for the veep. And his ultimate end is completely routine. Let's be honest here: If you're going to create a monster, you have to create a really cool way to kill him. Your police-issue .38 special just isn't special enough!
In addition, there's a largely pointless subplot involving one of Rhyme's jealous but incompetent supervisors who's trying to get the investigation away from him for vainglorious reasons. A coincidence that's almost an irony requires the gravel-voiced actor Michael Rooker to play this ridiculous role. The near-irony is that Rooker first broke through in John McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," which was the least romantic sociopath ever committed to film, a rat-brained piece of pond scum about as witty and symbolically inclined as toilet ring.
Yet for all the carping one can do, the following is indisputably true: At the narrative level, "The Bone Collector" is extremely gripping. You may have as much fun tearing it apart in its aftermath as you do watching it, but the fun is still genuine.
The Bone Collector (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for scenes of torture and grisly cadavers.
CAPTION: Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie's lower lip star in "The Bone Collector."