FBI Agent James Spader vs. Killer Keanu Reeves: Let the Creep-off Begin!
DIRECTED BY JOE CHARBANIC/2000
DVD STREET DATE: OCTOBER 4, 2022/MILL CREEK
IMDb trivia for The Watcher, Universal Studio’s now-forgotten serial killer potboiler of the year 2000, offers this concise factoid:
“In the opening scene, Keanu Reeves dances to the Rob Zombie song “Dragula” while doing kung fu moves behind green lighting. This is an homage to his previous blockbuster, The Matrix (1999)”.
And, that right there is almost all you need to know about The Watcher. The other things to know are: James Spader plays the prescription drug-addled FBI guy on Reeves’ trail. Marisa Tomei, in the film’s most thankless role (and that’s saying something), plays Spader’s shrink. Ernie Hudson is the fed-up FBI Agent in Charge. It was directed by Joe Charbanic, who is said to have been the touring videographer for Reeves’ band Dogstar.
It is also said that Reeves was talked into doing a bit part in the film to help Charbanic get it made, but that ballooned into a lead role. By all accounts, Reeves hated that he was playing a murderer and only did so because his assistant forged his signature on the contract. Rather than back out and torpedo the livelihoods of all others involved, Reeves opted to take one for the team. He also promised not to speak ill of The Watcher until a year after it had been out. One imagines he was counting down the days. Whatever degree of truth there is to all of that, it definitely makes for a far better story than the one the film itself tells.
Of all the showy, dated visual flourishes that have come and gone in film history, the rampant face-smacking effects of the late 1990s and early 2000s have aged the most egregiously. Lousy with jutting random slo-mo (slo-slo-slo-mo-mo-mo…) and a ridiculous lot of sudden negative “serial killer” posterization (Kuh-Chung!!), it’s hard not to view The Watcher purely as a work of ironic embarrassment. The funny thing is, the late ‘90s/early 2000s were the age of ironic detachment… Could it be that The Watcher knew what it was doing…? That the whole thing is one big ironic time bomb……?
Nah. It really is what it is. And here we are.
The reason I’m discussing The Watcher at all is on account of a new budget DVD release it’s gotten from Mill Creek Entertainment. Unlike the packed-out “collector’s edition” DVD that Universal released when the film was still new (within that first year, I’m guessing), this disc has zero, count ‘em, zero extras. If extras are your thing, you can probably find the collector’s edition languishing in the bargain bins of any surviving used physical media shops. But if all you want is the movie, there’s this new Mill Creek disc. It looks reasonably good for standard definition, except for a VFX shot of someone on fire falling out of an exploding building. That shot looks like crap.
As for the movie itself, it upgrades around the thirty-minute mark from “stupider than stupid” (with all that kung fu-lishness, Rob Zombie dancing, and Kuh-Chung!! posterizing) to “moderately watchable.” Reeves’ character, with his murder after murder, seems to be trying to make a point about no one noticing and no one caring about others. He selects a young female to be his next victim, sends a photo of her to Spader, Spader fixates on the photo every which way, and the FBI does a full media blitz to locate the individual. Inevitably, no leads go anywhere, and the poor girls are all killed anyway. But really, it’s Spader that Reeves is obsessed with, as two have a bloody past in L.A. (See: the narratively vague jutting slo-mo images of the opening titles sequence). The question is, is Spader equally obsessed with having Reeves to pursue? And isn’t this pretty much the whole dynamic of every movie with Batman and the Joker?
Watching The Watcher, I wondered if this might be one of those cases of flip-flopped casting. I mean, it does seem more obvious for Reeves to be the FBI good guy, and Spader to be the killer. I must say that they made the right choice in going against the immediately obvious types. Is that enough to make me want to ever watch The Watcher again? Nah.