21 Eyes (2003) / Mystery
aka Replay

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably R for violence, some sensuality and language
Running Time: 86 min.

Cast: Fisher Stevens (voice), Michael Buscemi (voice), Nestor Serrano, Rebecca Mader, Chance Kelly, Richard Pelzman, John Lumia, Richard DeAngleis, Mary Birdsong (voice), Shae D'Lyn (voice)
Director: Lee Bonner
Screenplay: Lee Bonner, Sean Paul Murphy
Review published August 3, 2006

21 Eyes is a high-concept thriller told almost completely from the perspective of twenty-one security video cameras capturing the events revolving around a botched robbery attempt of a priceless diamond at the home of a wealthy businessman.  The wealthy man in question, Seth Collison (Serrano, Runaway Jury) is sure that an inside man must be involved, but the lead detective on the case saw no initial evidence to support these claims. Originally thought to be an open-and-shut case, detectives Blu (Stevens, Undisputed) and Scotty (Buscemi, Trees Lounge) pour over the security camera footage one more time to try to assert whether Collison's claims of an inside man are correct.

Knowing they had a limited budget to work with, the writing team of Sean Paul Murphy and Lee Bonner (who also serves as director) ingeniously craft a worthwhile mystery that may be lean on production values, but still manages to deliver a surprising amount of naturalistic tension and intrigue throughout.  The only footage we see is through a video monitor that is displaying the contents of several videotapes, featuring recordings taken through the eyes of nearly two dozen video cameras, along with some police interrogation excerpts which occurred after the start of the investigation itself. 

None of what we see on the screen occurs in real time, but we are guided through the footage by an off-screen conversation primarily involving two detectives conversing about the events they are witnessing along with us.  The detectives closely scrutinize the tapes, switching them to look at the events through different perspectives, while fast-forwarding, rewinding, and pausing as needed to fit together the pieces of the intricate puzzle.

21 Eyes shows that entertaining movies can be still be made by people who are clever enough to figure out how to use a limited budget to work for them.  Since all of the video footage comes through relatively inexpensive video equipment on tapes, the lack of quality in the visuals makes perfect sense.  It also follows that the acting shouldn't be too polished, as we are supposed to believe that the characters we watch are real people experiencing a real-life harrowing event.  What most people would consider weaknesses in other films, the producers of 21 Eyes cleverly use as their strengths.

Although we never get to see him, Fisher Stevens does a good job handling the voice work, and the film also benefits from the quality performance from one of my favorite character actors, Nestor Serrano, in the role of the egotistical Mr. Collison.  If there is one minor gripe I might have, it's in the use of offscreen music in the film, as it is the one aspect of the entire production that takes away from the presumption of realism to the events.

It takes a bit of time to get used to the premise and execution of 21 Eyes, but once we understand just what the parameters are, it delivers enough suspense, humor, and clever twists to keep fans of mysteries and crime dramas reeled in to the very end.  Credit Lee Bonner and Sean Paul Murphy for putting together a nimble and often fascinating little movie that exploits a gimmick with inventive flair and a furtive imagination.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo