Saturday, August 18, 2007

Quick Take: ZODIAC (2007)

Of all the serial killers that have fascinated true crime buffs for years, The Zodiac continues to bewilder professional and armchair detectives to this day. The blueprint for Scorpio, the savage killer who meets his end at the hands of Harry Callahan in DIRTY HARRY, Zodiac terrorized the San Francisco region for years during the 1960s and 70s, yet the killings remain unsolved to this day.

Several filmmakers have used the disturbing, perplexing elements of the case to craft sinister cinematic looks at who the killer was and why he did what he did. Notorious schlockmeister Uli Lommel has provided not one but two Zodiac-inspired outings, THE ZODIAC KILLER (2005) and CURSE OF THE ZODIAC (2007) and if you have cable you're sure to see the recent borefest THE ZODIAC (2005) starring Robin Tunney (PRISON BREAK) and Justin Chambers (GREY'S ANATOMY, THE WEDDING PLANNER) as the obsessed cop.

I haven't seen Lommel's entries yet – I'm still trying to shake off the stink of his wretched, but fascinating ZOMBIE NATION – but THE ZODIAC was like a Cliffs Notes version of the story, complete with Chambers' hammy overacting, in-your-face period detail and LOST's William Mapother as a newspaper reporter who uses the crimes to advance his own career.

Don't confuse this outing with David Fincher's long but fascinating ZODIAC (2007) now out on DVD. (Side note. I went to the local video store to rent ZODIAC last night because I didn't feel like waiting for it to arrive from NetFlix. Imagine my surprise when I was told the store was closing and everything was for sale, but not rental. Dreading the thought of dealing with rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon in order to get to the next closest video store I decided to check Red Box while I was in the grocery store next door. Not only did they have ZODIAC, but they had the widescreen version and it was a buck to rent. No wonder my Hollywood Video is closing up shop. Between NetFlix and Red Box which is in almost every grocery store I frequent – not to mention outside all our area Golden Arches – I can see why the business model of a retail video rental store is quickly becoming a dinosaur.)

Based on the bestselling book by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhall), ZODIAC traces the killings, the investigation and the cops and newspaper writers who tracked down leads and attempted to crack one of the great unsolved crimes of all-time.

Fincher's flick is loaded with a top drawer cast including Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox (my favorite Hannibal Lecter), Gyllenhall, Chloe Sevigny, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue and Philip Baker Hall (who also appears in THE ZODIAC). But they all look like rank amateurs next to Robert Downey, Jr. who turns in a great performance as Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery, a hard-drinking, hard-living newspaperman who eventually became on the killer's intended targets.

Downey's portrayal of Avery is full of brilliance and bluster, drunken bravado and cock-eyed line delivery that has you laughing despite the weighty, dark subject matter.

ZODIAC is a terrific flick and it fully engages the viewer despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time. Kudos, though, to Downey and his role as Avery is just one more reason why I can't wait for his take on industrialist-turned-superhero Tony Stark in next summer's IRON MAN.

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