Guardian (UK), February 24, 2001
This time, it's personal
Once just the goofy dimwit, Keanu Reeves finally looks as if he's playing with a full deck as a vindictive killer in The Watcher. Joe Queenan admires a star coming of age
by Joe Queenan
In recent times, Keanu Reeves has been cast as a brilliant hacker in The Matrix, as a cold-fusion specialist in Chill Factor, and as a resourceful SWAT team specialist who must outwit the mad bomber Dennis Hopper in Speed. Since Reeves started his career by playing morons in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and I Love You To Death, dimwits in Parenthood and Bram Stoker's Dracula, and average guys who didn't seem to have all that much on the ball in River's Edge, Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk In The Clouds, this on-screen intellectual evolution is edifying indeed. It is as if the ageing Gary Cooper, the apotheosis of laconic stolidity, suddenly found himself cast as a dashing nobleman, a preening fop or even a gay caballero.
In The Watcher, Reeves continues his laudable migration away from lunkheaded roles, playing a talented serial killer who moves from California to Chicago to be near James Spader, the FBI agent he delights in tormenting. A few years earlier, while Spader was working his case, the two had developed a textbook cat-and-mouse camaraderie. An obvious victim of unresolved self-esteem issues, it was never enough for Reeves to strangle a large number of women with piano wire; he also needed to be respected for his craft. Through his passion and industry, Spader, a gifted pro in his own right, grudgingly provided that homage.
But one day Reeves pushes the relationship too far by invading Spader's space and incinerating the woman he loves. Devastated by the murder, Spader relocates to the Windy City, seemingly to be closer to the woman's grave.
Initially, the change of scenery does not help. Spader, perfectly cast as a zombie (oh great, now I've got this fascinating mental image in my head that won't go away. - Ani), spends day after day in his tiny apartment injecting or ingesting every pharmaceutical known to man. But things get a whole lot worse when Reeves turns up, announcing his arrival by murdering a young woman who lives in Spader's apartment building. And things really deteriorate when Reeves begins sending Spader photos of his next victim, giving him a scant 12 hours to save her. As hoped, this has the salubrious effect of yanking Spader out of his funk.
It is inevitable in a relationship such as this that one of the parties is finally going to break down and seek psychiatric help. Spader is the first to crack, hooking up with a psychologist played by Marisa Tomei. Tomei, who once won an Academy Award for her supporting role in My Cousin Vinny, has lately become a sort of poor man's Sandra Bullock. Not much of an actress in the best of times, Tomei does bring a much-appreciated perkiness to an exceedingly dark motion picture. Unfortunately, this only lasts until Reeves also decides to seek her services. Although Tomei does advance a number of provocative theories, hypothesising that Reeves and Spader secretly need one another to bring meaning into their otherwise empty lives, she is basically no help at all.
As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Spader has not learned a whole lot from his previous experiences with Reeves. Since he knows that the killer is a voyeur and a stalker who likes to murder pretty young women, it would have made more sense for him to find an ugly male psychiatrist to help sort out his problems, but no, he has to choose Tomei, thereby signing her death warrant. This is one of the strange ironies of this unwholesome but generally endurable movie; though Spader seems like an intelligent man, he keeps doing incredibly stupid things, while Reeves, who seems about as intelligent as a Santa Monica car valet, continually astounds us with his prodigious homicidal wizardry. At this rate, he might still live to play Galileo.
Eventually, Reeves begins to weary of the game and raises the stakes by abducting Tomei and putting her in a situation from which she cannot possibly extricate herself without having Spader put himself at the killer's mercy. At this point, the screenplay's connect-the-dots Freudian underpinnings come into play, as Spader must outwit the serial killer by addressing his gaping self-esteem problems. Though cathartic, the ending of the film is not terribly ingenious; indeed, the best thing about the last 15 minutes of the film is that Tomei has duct tape across her mouth and is thereby prevented from delineating any more of her inane theories.
The most interesting question about The Watcher is why the three players chose to do it. In Spader's case, he will probably take whatever work he can get. In Tomei's case, she will definitely take whatever work she can get. In Reeves' case, who knows? For years he has been one of Hollywood's least predictable stars, now launching himself into the stratosphere with massive hits like Speed and The Matrix, now appearing in screwy duds like Feeling Minnesota, Cold Fusion and this. His choices have always been strange, and they are not getting any less strange as he gets older.
For my money the best-looking actor in Hollywood, Reeves is slowly but surely approaching the point where he can no longer play vulnerable, charismatic young men who are definitely not playing with a full deck. It is hard to imagine Reeves at age 50 still playing the goofy Valley Boy. But then again, it was hard to imagine Reeves at age 25 playing a French nobleman in Dangerous Liaisons or a callow youth in Much Ado About Nothing. Someone once said that God protects drunks, babies and the United States of America. Surveying Reeves' consistent ability to bounce back from substandard films like The Watcher and return to the big time, one has to believe that the name "Keanu" also appears on God's list of protected species.