Suspect Zero (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
The basic premise of the film is not too difficult to
describe for those who know films. Imagine a re-make of SE7EN in
which John Doe kills people not because of the imagined "sins" they
have committed, but because they have committed crimes of
unimaginable magnitude, like the serial killing of lost children. As
in SE7EN, we have two cops chasing after a criminal who is deranged
but also much smarter than they are. As in SE7EN, the criminal
leaves behind convoluted or cryptic clues that lead the cops to other victims or to
himself. As in SE7EN,
the cops discover grisly details by using flashlights in dark rooms.
As in SE7EN, the psychotic criminal mastermind is played by a
distinguished actor (in this case Sir Ben "Gandhi" Kingsley).
Simple enough. Our master criminal seems to be the garden-variety movie psycho when we see him assembling long lists of seemingly random numbers and bizarre sketches of brutal crimes, but he differs from the guy in SE7EN in two critical ways.
Frankly, the film gets a bit convoluted around the middle of the film. There are regular serial killers, then the master serial killer called Suspect Zero, then the serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Even with a straightforward narrative style this film could have been confusing, but as told here, with all sorts of gimmicky shifts in POV represented by different types of non-traditional visuals (certain scenes are in red and white, other scenes are deliberately grainy), it could get irritating. The camera lingers on demented drawings, or on visions inside Gandhi's head, or maybe inside the FBI agent's head. There are gothic camera angles, purposely underlit scenes, fast cuts, surreal visions, and just a whole lot of stylized stuff which didn't advance the film forward. There were a lot of times when my mind was wandering because of the static narrative. I didn't really snap in and start to get involved until the film was down to its last ten minutes. In other words, the story offers none of the traditional pleasure of a crime mystery, of solving the crime along with the detectives, because everything is deliberately obfuscated by a baffling use of a technique so hip and aloof that it simply forces the audience to wait until everything is explained. I guess they call this "over-directing" in film school. I'm now pretty sure that I understand who was killing whom and why, but I was confused as the story unfolded. That is to say I was confused when I wasn't just plain bored.
I'm still confused on some details.
You may not know that this film is an important contributor to film history, at least in an indirect way. The original script by Zak Penn (X2) was really the talk of the town back in the mid nineties when it was the object of a studio bidding war. Universal bought it for some serious cash and Tom Cruise wanted to star in it. In fact, this is the very film Cruise was going to do when Kubrick talked him into donating the next two years of his life to Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise still liked the script well enough to agree to produce the film, although it languished in production limbo for years. At various times, the Hollywood rumor mill reported that some real heavyweights like Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) did rewrites. Ain't It Cool News reported that Ben Affleck was asked to do a re-write (remember that in the late nineties Affleck was a struggling actor with a screenwriting Oscar). AICN's version of the story was that Affleck looked at the project and said he would agree to star and co-produce, but that there was no need to do a re-write if Penn's original script was used! AICN's Moriarty also read Penn's script and agreed with Affleck, so two more guys seemed to jump on the bandwagon which should have departed four years earlier when Penn's original version had been one of the hottest scripts in town.
Frankly, I'm fuzzy on the details of the story after that. Tom Cruise is still listed as the executive producer, and the only screenwriting credits go to Zak Penn and Billy Ray. If Penn's original script was so good, it did not manage to emerge unscathed from the effects of Ray's rewrites and the highly stylized direction. The final film is mediocre at best, despite a substantial $27 million production budget. The producers were obviously well aware of the film's problems, because after waiting for seven years to film the movie, they waited another two years before releasing it. The script was sold in May of 1995, the re-written film was shot in mid-2002, and the final product finally appeared on 1,500 movie screens in August of 2004, at which time it debuted with a three million dollar weekend, and disappeared soon thereafter.
This film had me stopping the DVD constantly to eat or to work on something else. It was just boring and meandering. Many talented people tried but could not make a good film from this material.
And yet there is a very profound ethical dilemma buried in here - a do-gooder genius is identifying and exterminating the worst killers in our midst, killers that are eluding mainstream law enforcement, but he is doing it outside the law with bizarre ceremonial murders. Do we really want our law enforcement officers to work hard to bring that guy to justice? It's an interesting premise.
I can't help thinking that there was a good film buried somewhere deep inside of it ...
... perhaps in that neglected original script?
'Tis a mystery to me. because if Penn's script was so good in the first place, why did so many people keep insisting on rewrites before it could get produced? Subsumed within that major issue is the question of why anyone was willing to commit $27 million to the script in its current condition, because it had so many obvious problems (the completely unnecessary Carrie-Anne Moss character, for example. Moss must have wondered what the hell she was doing in the movie.)
SIDEBAR: If you are really a film buff, you may be interested in this: Paul Shrader's unproduced version of the script.
Return to the Movie House home page