A fine example of an average film boosted by good performances, Copycat is a lot more enjoyable now than it seemed at the time it was released. In 1996, Se7en had redefined the serial killer genre in such an elaborate manner that Jon Amiel's old fashioned thriller seemed somehow irrelevant. Five years on, the merits of the film have become apparent.
The film is centred, for a change, around two women; Dr Helen Hudson (Weaver), a psychologist who has developed chronic agrophobia after being attacked after a university lecture by a redneck psychopath, Daryll Lee Cullum (Connick Jr); and homicide detective M.J. Monahan (Hunter), who enlists Helen's help to solve a series of murders, each of them copycats of a famous serial killing. The prickly relationship between the two professionals is what gives the film its spark, largely because both Hunter and Weaver are on top form. Otherwise, it's a fairly standard crime movie coaxed along with some skill by the under-achieving director Jon Amiel. There are some well directed scenes of stalking and a tangible air of menace at times as Dr Hudson is tormented in various unpleasant ways - the best one being the unnerving MPEG she is sent via e-mail. In typical police movie fashion, M.J. has a relaxed partner, Reuben (Mulroney) who flirts with Helen, and a rather creepy colleague played with customary skill by Will Patton. Meanwhile, the killer gets on with his unpleasant tasks in a commendably subtle manner, with the aftermath dwelt on more than the act itself - although the autopsy photos are certainly not for the squeamish.
There are, sadly, a number of problems with the film. Firstly, the opening sequence, where Helen is attacked, is so well achieved that it tends to make the rest of the film seem a bit disappointing. A stunning opening number in fact, which raises expectations that aren't fulfilled. In addition, the actual plotting is a bit obvious with most of the expected cliches present and correct and the decision to reveal the killer in the first half hour might have been a mistake. Most of the characters apart from the central pairing are simply ciphers, albeit well played ones, and the second half slaughter of two of them smacks more of a desperate attempt to extend the film than anything more important to the narrative.
However, the film remains reasonably gripping and showcases two excellent actresses who grab the opportunity to shine. Weaver is sympathetic as the beleaguered psychologist and she makes a particular impact in the scenes of panic. Hunter has less to do but is an engaging presence and her ability to spin even the most banal line of dialogue into something unexpected and amusing is very welcome. It's always nice to see actors like Patton and J.E.Freeman, even though their roles here are somewhat disposable. The main weak link in the cast is William MacNamara, looking about sixteen and having nothing like the menace or authority to be convincing as the psychotic killer. The surprise, on the other hand, is Harry Connick Jr, who is funny, scary and truly unsettling as the serial killer who attacks Weaver in the opening scene.
Jon Amiel's direction is neat and sharp, if a little anonymous, and he is greatly assisted by his talented collaborators. Laszlo Kovacs provides some atmospheric cinematography - he's especially good at sunlit terror - and the editing of Alan Heim and Jim Clark is razor sharp, especially in the concluding scenes. Christopher Young's music score ranges from the effectively edgy piano themes that recall Klute to clumpingly obvious scare stuff that any hack could come out with given a spare half hour. As for the screenplay, it gives good dialogue to the principal characters while going through the motions in terms of plotting. What you see is what you get; there are no clever twists along the lines of Seven, which does give the film a slightly old fashioned air. Having said this, though, it's executed with good old fashioned professionalism and, despite a certain overlength, it does stay reasonably compelling.
The air of competence that distinguishes the film is carried over onto the disc. It's not a particularly remarkable disc in terms of special features but it does deliver reasonably good picture sound quality.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. It's a pretty good picture without any serious artifacting problems or distracting grain. A little bit of white and black "popping" in places though, and a slightly soft feel throughout, although the level of detail is acceptable. The interior scenes look better than the exteriors. Good contrast and colour throughout.
The soundtrack in DD5.1 is effective enough without being spectacular. A nice sense of atmospheric menace in the surrounds during the opening scene and excellent range in the music score. Dialogue is often spatially placed. The rear speakers are not used much, if at all and the sub-woofer is rarely brought into play.
The only significant extra, along with some brief biographies, is a commentary from the director. I didn't find it a particularly informaive track because Amiel spends too much time imparting redundant information describing what we're watching rather than analysing the scenes. When he comments on atmosphere and acting, the track is quite interesting but there are lengthy silences and the sense is given that he isn't enjoying the task very much.
There are a generous 39 chapters and static menus.
While this film was shadowed by Seven when it was released in 1996, it is a lot more entertaining that might be expected and is well worth seeing for the performances of Hunter and Weaver. The DVD is adequate and worth getting if you can find a discount on the recommended price.
A fine example of an average film boosted by good performances, Copycat is a lot more enjoyable now ...