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Murder by Numbers (April 28/02)

Murder by Numbers casts Sandra Bullock as a jaded and bitter detective with a troubled past who, as the film opens, is breaking in a new partner (played, sans English accent, by Ben Chaplin). The two immediately catch a case that seems easy enough to crack - a dead woman is found with fibers and clues a-plenty strewn over her body. Bullock, being the brilliant investigator she is (how do we know she's brilliant? She's a loner mistrusted by everyone else on the force) deduces that this is not the work of the simple-minded janitor to whom all the evidence points, but rather to two sociopaths that just happen to be high school students. But, this being a by-the-numbers thriller, nobody believes her theory - especially not her cliched captain, who takes to chewing her out and demanding she drop the case. Meanwhile, the two sociopaths are reveling in their brilliance and plotting a second murder.

Murder by Numbers isn't bad, really; it's just wholly unoriginal and obvious from the get-go. By telling us right off the bat that these two kids are unequivocally the killers, a good portion of the suspense is removed. Much like the recent Law and Order spinoff Criminal Intent, the plot is basically an exploration of the killers' motives and the investigation by the two detectives on the case. But unlike that show, this movie goes on far longer than it should (at a running time of close to two hours, it's about a half hour too long) and contains one subplot too many. There's an entire backstory with Bullock and why she's so messed up that's completely useless. Do we really care whether or not Bullock eventually faces her demons? Not really. We just want to see more of those two nutty kids.

Having said that, Bullock is undeniably good in this role. She seems so determined to shed the romantic comedy persona that the public associates her with and unlike Meg Ryan, she just might be able to pull it off. Bullock's character is pretty much the most unlikable person she's played in her career, and it's a testament to her talent that she takes this woman and forces us to root for her. But Chaplin, sporting an impressive but flat American accent, has been completely drained of any and all charisma we've come to expect from him. Lesson learned: Never ask Ben Chaplin to lose his British accent. But speaking of charisma, Ryan Gosling - as one of the two sociopaths - is completely amazing and compelling as this spoiled and brilliant nutjob. He's definitely got a future ahead of him, hopefully in better movies. Gosling, like Edward Norton, seems to be the sort that'll disappear into his characters and considering this guy used to be a Mouseketeer, that's saying something.

Murder by Numbers, as cliched and hackneyed as it is, is still entertaining for its 120 minute running time - assuming, of course, you're willing to accept the fact that it plays like an overlong episode of Law and Order: CI.

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