The Bone Collector

The Bone Collector (1999)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah, Michael Rooker, Ed O’Neill
Extras: Audio Commentary, Behind the Scenes Featurette, Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Talent Files, Universal Showcase

I feel that the world owes a debt of gratitude to author Thomas Harris for bringing us "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs", two of the greatest crime-thrillers ever. But, I also feels that Harris owes the world an apology for two things: 1) "Hannibal" — one of the worst books ever, and 2) Inspiring hundreds of serial-killer books and movies. (Some of this blame must also go to "Se7en", for making it look so easy.) Since the success of both the book and film of "The Silence of the Lambs", we have been deluged with all kinds of serial killer stories; some good, but most bad. The latest in this long line is "The Bone Collector", which is based on a novel by Jeffery Deaver. "The Bone Collector" mimics the technical details of Harris’ work, but offers a twist when it comes to the main characters.

The film opens with Detective Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) investigating a murder in a subway tunnel. While crawling to the body, debris falls on Lincoln, leaving him a quadraplegic. The story then moves forward four years, where we find a bed-ridden and depressed Lincoln, who can find no reason to go on living. We learn that Lincoln was considered one of the best forensic detectives in the world and was a successful author, but his sedintary state has left him hopeless.

When a famous financier is found murdered, Detective Paulie Selitto (Ed O’Neill) turns to Lincoln for help. Lincoln is introduced to Officer Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie), who found the corpse and recorded the evidence at the crime scene. Lincoln is impressed by the forensic work of Amelia and insists that she be placed on the case. Lincoln begins to unravel the mysterious clues left behind by the killer and discovers that they actually point to where the next murder will occur. Meanwhile, Lincoln must deal with interference from Captain Howard Cheney (The "Serial Killer" himself, Michael Rooker), who is intimidated by Lincoln’s expertise and knowledge, and feels that he must solve the murders on his own.

From his bed, Lincoln guides Amelia (via radio) through the streets of New York to hunt the killer. Despite his initial hesitations with helping on the case, Lincoln starts to enjoy the work and begins to rethink his view on life. As more bodies are found, and more bizarre clues are discovered, Lincoln begins to realize that the murders are the work of a brilliant, but insane killer and that he and Amelia may by in danger.

"The Bone Collector" offers us the all too familiar tale of the police pursuing a killer, but throws in some differences. The most obvious difference is that the hero is a quadraplegic and never moves from his bed. This not only offers a new perspective on the investigative procedure, but at the same time offers us insight into the life of someone who can only move their head and one hand. This sets up the relationship between Lincoln and Amelia. We’ve all seen the stereotypical trick in films where someone defuses a bomb or lands a plane while being guided via radio by an expert. But in "The Bone Collector", the entire film is set up on this premise that Amelia will be Lincoln’s eyes, ears, and legs as they work the case together. I admire writers who can take a small idea and expand it and give it new meaning.

Director Phillip Noyce ("Dead Calm", "Patriot Games") turns the deficit of having an actor who can’t move into a plus, by creating many interesting camera angles whenever Lincoln is in a scene. As Lincoln is locked into his location, most of the actors in the scenes with him stay stationary as well (as it would be in real life when talking to someone who can’t move). To keep these scenes from becoming too static, Noyce keeps the camera moving and also gives the viewer an idea of what the world looks like from Lincoln’s point-of-view.
From the <$commentary,audio commentary> (which is discussed in detail below), we learn from Noyce that a great deal of CGI was used to create the illusion of being in New York, as the film was shot mostly in Montreal. The majority of these effects are seamless, and it really gives one an idea of how a big budget and creativity can let CGI do more than create imaginary creatures. By matting in CGI shots through windows, or laying them onto car windows, the illusion of being in New York is created. It’s amazing to learn that a car that appears to be speeding over a bridge is actually sitting still on a set in Canada. The only special effect shot that doesn’t work comes at the 37-minute mark. It’s an exterior shot which was filmed on a sunny day, but altered so as to appear overcast. The resulting shot gives the sense that the characters have left Lincoln’s apartment and stepped onto the surface of Mars, as the bizarre contrasts of light and dark in the scene gives the appearance of a photo negative.

Denzel Washington gives a superb performance as Lincoln Rhyme. Washington overcomes the hurdle of being stuck in a bed by giving the performance using only his facial expressions and his voice. He conveys happiness, fear, anger, and frustration through simple facial gestures and the tone of his voice. Jolie is good as Amelia, although she seems very stiff at times. The real surprise in the film is Queen Latifah, who plays Lincoln’s full-time caregiver. Her performance is very genuine and heartfelt. Despite the fact that he will always be Al Bundy, Ed O’Neill does a good job as a policeman who is in desperate need of assistance on this case. As usual, Michael Rooker is very convincing as the heavy. (I only wish that someone had given him the stink-palm!)

Despite these good points, "The Bone Collector" is not without its flaws, most of which lie in the story itself. (For the record, I haven’t read Jeffrey Deaver’s novel, so I can’t say how the film differs.) While the detective angle may be unique, the story of the killer is not. From the beginning, we are not shown the killer’s face, so we immediately know that it will be a character that we know. However, we aren’t given many clues as to who it could be. Unlike most mysteries where the audience is at least given the illusion that they are one step ahead of the characters in the film, in "The Bone Collector" we actually know less than they do, and this makes it difficult to become invested in the film. And when the killer is revealed, it leaves more questions than answers, making the showdown a bit frustrating and detached.

While "The Bone Collector" attempts to mimic the forensic accuracy of "Red Dragon", it gets too bogged down in the scientific investigation. The detectives discuss antique paper and rusty bolts, and while this is interesting in the beginning, it soon becomes tedious and the viewer wishes for the film to move forward. Also, at times, the pacing slows down too much. When Amelia investigates the second murder, it seems to take forever for her to find the body. Instead of creating suspense, it merely creates boredom. While at first glance, the weak points in "The Bone Collector" don’t amount to much, but when compared to films like "The Silence of the Lambs" or "Se7en", it just can’t measure up.

As with most of its recent releases, Universal Home Video has done an excellent job in its presentation of "The Bone Collector." The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1. The framing appears to be accurate, as image doesn’t appear squeezed or distorted in any way. It is clear, but seemed a bit dark at times. There were also some very minor, but still noticeable deficits in the source material towards the end. Despite the fact that this is a <$RSDL,dual layer> disc, the visual presentation doesn’t quite measure up to some of Universal’s other recent releases, such as "Mystery Men" or "The Mummy." The impression arises that the video quality has been sacrificed on this release to make room for the added, storage-hungry <$DTS,DTS> audio track.

There are similar issues with the audio. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 audio mix offers some of the best surround sounds that I’ve heard and uses the discrete surround channels very aggressively. There’s scene where Amelia is underground with many dripping pipes surrounding her. I kept pausing the movie to see why the dog was drinking so much water, until I realized that it was the dripping from the film that I was hearing. Now that is sound quality! The drawback is that audio is wildly unbalanced, as the dialogue is inaudible at a normal volume setting, but musical stings or explosions are extremely loud, forcing the viewer to be ever vigilant with the volume control. The quality of the DTS audio track is also well transfer and unfortunately plagued by the same balancing problems.

Despite the fact that this isn’t an official "Collector’s Edition" DVD, "The Bone Collector" is still packed with features. There is an <$commentary,audio commentary> by director Phillip Noyce. Noyce does a great job of talking non-stop throughout the entire film, so there are no gaps of silence. (And after a while, he voice begins to eerily sound like Hitchcock’s!) Noyce does a great job of explaining how the CGI effects shots were done and the decision making process behind how the film was shot. He balances these technical explanations by touching on the origins of the plot and how he worked with the actors. The only flaw in his commentary is that he will get caught up in a subject and fail to discuss the immediate on-screen action, but that is only a small quibble.

The DVD offers the familiar Universal "Spotlight on Location". This 15-minute plus segment is made up of behind-the-scenes footage and cast interviews. There are production notes which unfortunately only seem to reiterate many of the facts from the "Spotlight on Location" segment. There are extensive talent files, covering most of the cast. The theatrical trailer for "The Bone Collector" is included, but it is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1.

My favorite extra on the DVD is the Universal Showcase. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, it is a trailer for a film that is currently/soon to be in theaters. This had become the Pandora’s Box of DVDdom, for when you highlight and select Universal Showcase, you never know if you’re going to get a good trailer or a bad trailer. On "The Bone Collector", the featured trailer is for the new Joshua Jackson thriller "The Skulls", which looks like a fun film, despite the fact that it’s an obvious rip-off of "The Firm". (And the fact that the trailer says "Coming this February" and the film has yet to show up can’t be a good sign either.) Under the recommendation section, you will find trailers for "Cry Freedom" and "Fear." (Let me put in my two cents by saying that these aren’t "hidden" features, they’re unadvertised features. There is a difference.)

"The Bone Collector" makes a valiant effort of be different, but it ultimately can’t live up to the movies by which it was inspired. The film offers some interesting characters and is nicely shot, but the plot ultimately becomes too top-heavy and slow for its own good. The Universal DVD of "The Bone Collector" offers an acceptable transfer of the film and some fantastic (yet loud at times) surround sound. Serial killer film completists should definitely check this movie out, but I don’t know if I would add it to my collection.