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Miss Noncongeniality: Sandra Bullock plays a troubled homicide detective in Barbet Schroeder's 'Murder by Numbers.'

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Sandra Bullock adds sexual edge to 'Murder by Numbers'

By Richard von Busack

SAN BENITO (read Morro Bay) homicide detective Cassie Mayweather (read Sandra Bullock) has a bad reputation for promiscuity and knife scars she doesn't talk about. Her newest case involves the apparently random slaying of a middle-aged woman, but we're ahead of her. We know that the culprits are a pair of high school thrill-killers. One is a brainy Peter Lorre type named Richard (Ryan Gosling), whose misreading of Nietzche and Rimbaud has lead him to the usual homicidal precipice. His best friend (and lover?), the mocking rich boy Justin (Michael Pitt), helps him match philosophy to deeds.

Murder by Numbers delivers a satisfying police story, with Cassie's personal life counterpointing the scheming of the two killers. The alert, handsome Bullock does what Clint Eastwood is usually credited with: she takes a basic portrait of a cop and turns it into a study of wounded remoteness. In a clever switch, Cassie's the sexual aggressor. Her fellow cop Sam--Ben Chaplin as a nice, polite guy who is perhaps inexperienced, perhaps a little wimpy--doesn't want to be just a sex partner and gets miffed when Cassie prefers to sleep alone, kicking him out of bed. Thanks to Bullock's craft and Chaplin's patient, slightly comic dignity, Cassie's line "Don't worry, I'll still respect you" gets a laugh, even though our concerns for this bottled-up woman grow.

Director Barbet Schroeder (Our Lady of the Assassins) has the humanity to tell a story of a murdered woman without getting off on it. He also has the style to bring out some sympathy for the villains, to make a joke out of the things meant as seriously scary in Tony Gayton's script. Pitt makes an appealing creep, showing off, playing the Satanist and blaring Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast" from his car stereo. Gosling played Tommy Gnosis, the boy who drove Hedwig around the bend in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There's pathos in scenes of a doomed affair with a girl he likes, Lisa (Agnes Bruckner), who has a baby face and burnt-out eyes. The romance is one of the film's crafty thematic borrowings from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

The title makes it clear that the film's ambitions are modest. Bullock, who served as executive producer, relieved some of the expense with her usual careful product placement. The pace flags sometimes, and for the ending we get the too-traditional shootout and the too-traditional plot twist. But the now-legendary Leopold/Loeb tale is well retold, and Bullock is compelling throughout. I don't want to see this deft performer typecast, but she really is at her best as a cop. Maybe, somewhere down the line, she should remake Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground. I can easily imagine her in the Robert Ryan part, beating up a suspect and crying out, "See what you made me do?"


Murder by Numbers (R; 121 min.), directed by Barbet Schroeder, written by Tony Gayton, photographed by Luciano Tovoli and starring Sandra Bullock, Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.


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From the April 18-24, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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