Friday, April 19, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Murder by Numbers' is a thriller without the thrills

Seattle Times movie critic

"Murder by Numbers"

With Sandra Bullock, Ben Chaplin, Ryan Gosling, Michael Pitt. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, from a screenplay by Tony Gayton. 125 minutes. Rated R for violence, language, a sex scene and brief drug use. Several theaters.

"Murder by Numbers," unfortunately, is exactly that: a rather rote thriller-by-numbers, in which plot elements seemingly exist in order to be checked off a list.

The strangely decadent, empty-souled teens who plot murder in between absinthe swigs? Check. The brilliantly intuitive but abrasive cop with a Dark Secret in her past? Check. The meticulous investigation, in which the cop is mistrusted and dissed by her superiors? Check. The final guns-and-chase sequence in a scary old house? Check. The life lessons learned by the cop?

Check, please.

There's nothing really wrong with "Murder by Numbers" — it's just that you've seen it all before. Sandra Bullock, in turtlenecks and authentically messy hair, plays tough Detective Cassie Mayweather, who with her neophyte partner Sam (Ben Chaplin) is called in to solve a murder case in a small California coastal town. A trail of clues leads them to two local teens whose alibis seem suspiciously airtight, but Cassie is determined that they are guilty of what might have been the perfect murder.

Since Tony Gayton's screenplay leaves us little doubt about the killer's identity (thanks to frequent flashbacks, and a final twist that will come as a surprise to no one), suspense is at a minimum throughout.

This leaves the likable Bullock to carry the film on the strength of her personality — no easy trick in a movie that includes vomit analysis as a major plot point. While she valiantly tries — one tiny moment, where she quizzically raises an eyebrow in an attempt to brush off an officious D.A., shows perfect comic timing — the character's been saddled with a painfully obvious back story that Bullock can't seem to overcome.

Chaplin, who's developing a habit of playing second fiddle to charismatic leading ladies (he was last seen in "Birthday Girl," standing somewhere near Nicole Kidman), has dark-brown eyes that are a nice match for Bullock's, and he's good at playing shock — particularly when Cassie makes a graceless pass at him. But there's really not much to his role.

More interesting are the teens, whose creepy friendship has a gothic quality. Michael Pitt, as the aesthete Justin, is made to look androgynous and puffy, with ruby lips and a sadly vacant stare. Ryan Gosling, as golden-boy Richard, is occasionally electrifying: he has the relaxed swagger of privilege, with a dangerously gleaming grin.

But by the end, as people dangle over ocean rocks from a collapsing porch, looking like nothing less than a theme-park ride gone wrong (and hey, wasn't Bullock supposed to have an injured arm?), "Murder by Numbers" outstays its welcome. The cast, as well as director Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune") can do much better than this.


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