“Murder by Numbers” is everything its title implies, a standard-issue crime drama spat out from the Tinseltown assembly line: it gives a name actor a showcase role (and an executive producing credit); its designated surprises are anything but; its intended shocks fail to offer a jolt. But that doesn’t necessarily make “Murder by Numbers” an awful film; it’s certainly watchable, but it never escapes its paint-by-numbers design.
Certainly adding to the watchability factor is Sandra Bullock. The typically perky star gives an uncharacteristically subdued turn as homicide detective Cassie Mayweather, whose no-nonsense attitude on the job extends to all other areas of her life–as her new partner (and all-too-easy seduction target) Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin) quickly discovers. But Bullock’s fairly convincing work is in service of a character type all too familiar: the cop whose distant demeanor hides deep emotional (and, for good measure, actual physical) scars. The formula would not be complete if Cassie’s current case didn’t in some way dredge up memories of her dark past, and indeed the brutal murder of a young woman proves to hit a bit close to home.
If only “Murder by Numbers” weren’t about Cassie and simply about the crime–or, better yet, the criminals. The murder was carefully planned and orchestrated by two high schoolers, one a cocky rich kid (Ryan Gosling), the other a more bashful, brainy type (Michæl Pitt). Whenever director Barbet Schroeder and writer Tony Gayton shift the focus to the complex relationship between these two, the film breaks from the normal thriller mode and flirts with becoming something more smart and interesting. The teens’ story may be another cinematic variation on the 1924 Leopold & Loeb case (in which two youths attempted the “perfect” crime), but the well-cast young actors’ performances lend their side of the film an air of freshness.
But it’s never long before Cassie blows back into the picture and “Murder by Numbers” falls back into the expected paces. Whether it be her acute investigative instincts latching onto sharp ideas that somehow no other cop can seem to grasp, that shady past creeping into her thoughts, or predictable twists unraveling right on Screenwriting 101 schedule, Cassie’s mere appearance brings with it a whole lot of formula baggage that prevents the film from ever becoming more than an average time-killer.