E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire may have been the first film to which I gave a five-star review after starting this column four years ago (in any case, it was certainly among the first). As a result, I was really looking forward to his next effort, Suspect Zero. And while I think the new film is much better than its lackluster box-office and predominately negative reviews would suggest, I can’t deny that it’s ultimately a disappointment. My dissatisfaction arises, however, not from finding the film itself to be bad, but because it should have been so much better.
Its box-office failure hardly surprises me. After all, when’s the last time you heard anyone say, “Hey, let’s go see that new Aaron Eckhart movie?” While both he and Carrie-Ann Moss’ names are recognizable, and Ben Kingsley’s carries with it some respect (Thunderbirds to one side), there’s no real drawing power on the marquee. Maybe if the original plan to make Suspect Zero with Tom Cruise in the lead had panned out, public turnout would have been different, though I doubt the megawatt star’s presence would have made for a better film. (Cruise’s production company was nonetheless behind the film, while his cousin, William Mapother, also has a small role in it.) It would then immediately have become a Tom Cruise vehicle — but one that, however great its premise, still would have had a faulty script. A very faulty script.
A specialized FBI agent trained to psychically “see” the actions of serial killers is a good starting point. Developing that idea to where the agent flips out and starts going after the killers himself — in search of a supposed “Suspect Zero” — is even better. Unfortunately, no one involved had the least idea how to really turn this into a workable story.
While much was made of Zak Penn as a screenwriter — based entirely on X2, for which he only worked on the story — everyone seems to have forgotten that he also wrote Behind Enemy Lines, an absurd movie with little in the way of logic or believability. And Billy Ray, who’s currently on the crest of the critical wave for Shattered Glass, has some dubious script skeletons in his resume closet, too — like Hidden Assassin and Volcano. Those two, films in fact, seem the more obvious underpinnings of Suspect Zero than do either X2 or Shattered Glass.
Apparently, Merhige was of the opinion that the premise was sound enough to be pulled along by his stylish approach. He wasn’t entirely wrong, but neither was he entirely right. Much of what’s flawed about the screenplay is at least glossed over by his filmmaking panache, but that doesn’t fix what’s ultimately broken; sometimes, it actually makes the film that much worse. The disparity between style and substance starts right away, with the sinister, mysterious entrance of Benjamin O’Ryan (Kingsley) — all shadows and glimpsed outline through frosted glass. While it’s creepy enough, any surprise that it’s Sir Ben is right out the window, since there’s no way on God’s earth to disguise the shape of that shaved head and those ears!
Later on, there’s the whole business of the ominous black semi that cruises around in telephoto shots like something out of Cocteau’s Orpheus, followed by an abandoned toy like something out of Fritz Lang’s M. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that by this strange vehicle’s third appearance, it’s become less menacing than it has slightly funny, simply in terms of arty overkill.
However, the script is what ultimately hamstrings the film — from its bizarre depiction of Albuquerque, N.M, as such a backwater that no one there has ever heard of Starbucks (and the state actually sank money into this film?) to including one of those mysteries that’s really no mystery at all alongside enough plot holes to make Swiss cheese. Yes, this is one of those movies where you go in knowing what’s going on and then spend half the running time waiting for the hero to catch up with you — something that style can only cover over but so much.
The gaps in the plot are too hard to catalogue without giving away what little mystery there is. I will like ask this, however: What sort of super serial-killer who’s escaped detection because he leaves his victims a thousand miles from the scene of the actual crime is going to have a backyard with row open row of very obvious shallow graves? Again, this may be a case of directorial overstatement, where going for something unsettling has overshadowed common sense and logic.
It’s not that Suspect Zero is awful, but that it’s about half of a good movie that finally feels rushed, not completely thought out, and unsatisfying. Eckhart and Kingsley are fine within the limits of what they’re given to do, though Carrie-Anne Moss is mostly wasted in a thankless role that ultimately turns into one of the movie’s biggest accidental laughs — when her character just happens to be within seconds of where the climax takes place, for no other reason than it suits the plot.
In the end, Suspect Zero is more interesting as filmmaking than it is as a thriller. That’s hardly in its favor, since not even Merhige’s artistic jag can keep a dead script afloat but for so long.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke