In yet another answer to the cinematic question of what hath "Seven" wrought, "Suspect Zero" joins dozens of lightweight knockoffs of David Fincher's 1995 thriller as a grisly, depraved and wholly uninvolving exercise in empty mannerism.
Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley star in what is supposed to be an edgy, psychological thriller about an FBI agent (Eckhart) and a mysterious stranger who seems to have the inside track on a series of unsolved serial murders. The formula is familiar: Eckhart's character, Thomas Mackelway, has just arrived at the bureau's Albuquerque office, having been demoted from Dallas; he's plagued with headaches, and compulsively pops aspirin with giant cups of coffee; his past catches up with him when his former partner and love interest, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, shows up to help with his current case. And Mackelway's nemesis, played by Kingsley, takes such pains to prove his diabolical brilliance that he might as well be waving pictures of Hannibal Lecter and "Seven's" John Doe in front of Mackelway saying, "See? Like these guys!"
Well, sort of. Kingsley, who cut such an unforgettable figure of restrained rage last year in "The House of Sand and Fog," isn't given much of a chance to do his thing until the final 20 minutes of "Suspect Zero." By that time filmgoers will be forgiven for getting up, leaving the theater, picking up the dry cleaning, getting a few things at the supermarket, going home, weeding the garden and giving the dog a bath -- at least in their own minds. His character has an admittedly arresting story, one rooted in some of the American intelligence community's more fascinating arcana, but it's buried under so many heavy layers of slack storytelling and visual self-consciousness that Kingsley never has a chance to really run with it.
Working from a script by Zak Penn and Billy Ray, director E. Elias Merhige -- whose most recent film was "The Shadow of the Vampire" -- makes the common error of mistaking upside-down camera angles, grainy film stock and periodic shifts in color for style. What's more, he trots out some unforgivably hoary cliches, such as the scene of Mackelway muttering to himself in front of a bulletin board cluttered with newspaper clippings and gruesome crime scene photos.
And be assured, those images -- mostly of brutalized women and children -- are ghastly, making "Suspect Zero" the kind of movie that traffics in gratuitous images of torture and gore while pretending to be appalled by them. Such hypocrisy is by now so commonplace in Hollywood that it seems pointless to notice, let alone register a complaint. Still, it makes you long to take in a true classic of cinema suspense -- a picture like, say, "Chinatown." As it happens, that film's screenwriter, Robert Towne, makes an uncredited cameo appearance in "Suspect Zero," as a professor who explains the film's title -- a reference to a serial killer who leaves no telltale pattern of clues. Instead of using Towne to make strained comparisons between murderers and black holes, the filmmakers might have been better advised to simply ask him for a tutorial in crafting a tricky, absorbing and authentically stylish thriller.
Suspect Zero (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violent content, profanity and some nudity.