Awakening the Zodiac (2017)

Starring Shane West, Leslie Bibb, Matt Craven, Stephen McHattie

Directed by Jonathan Wright

Part “Storage Wars” and part “CSI,” this well-meaning but slow-moving mystery thriller zeroes in on a fictional capture of the real Zodiac Killer. I thought the premise was quite clever – a storage unit that’s fallen into arrears and is auctioned off just happens to contain murder mementos from the most elusive serial killer in modern history.

I also thought the cast was terrific – Shane West and Leslie Bibb play the cash-strapped couple who wind up with the valuable ill-gotten goods, while Matt Craven and Stephen McHattie round out the picture as grizzled guys on opposite ends of the mystery. Craven is an amateur sleuth, while McHattie is the baddie.

The movie is set in present-day, so long after the San Francisco slayer’s hellish heyday that naturally the young marrieds don’t know all that much about him. Here’s where gray-haired exposition machine Craven comes in. I kid, but this “educational” portion of the story is well done. Yet, there’s a definite lack of chill in the re-creations, and it doesn’t come across just why the villain is so legendary. The Zodiac shares similarities to his British counterpart, Jack the Ripper (both struck quickly and cruelly, both taunted the police, and neither was ever ID’ed.)

Awakening the Zodiac starts off promisingly enough. As the treasure hunters sift through reels of 16mm film, they see each horrific murder frame-by-frame. They marvel at the previously uncracked cypher’s code. They even find the Zodiac’s rifle. But guess what? The Z-man isn’t happy about his stuff being auctioned off. First he takes care of the storage space manager; then he sets his sights on the buyers.

While the mysterious murderer – his identity is not revealed until toward the end – hunts his pray, his prey blindly hunts him. At first, it’s a fairly compelling cat-and-mice thriller. There are some tense moments and a passable red herring. But then inertia sets in and a lot of the action is filtered through dialogue. Bibb and West do their best, but the bickering-yet-loving couple routine gets pretty stale about halfway through. Then, as the story reaches its climax, they do dumber and dumber things until you’re actually hoping they become notches on the old sniper rifle.

As the Zodiac reveals more of his personality – yet none of his motives – it may be the viewer that has to be awakened. What’s more, the tacked-on coda is a noogie after one has invested so much time in getting to the end.

I won’t bother to compare this flick to David Fincher’s eponymous 2007 masterpiece, as that would be too unfair. But Awakening the Zodiac doesn’t even have a cinematic feel to it; it’s definitely small-screen fare. A decent timewaster if you’re a fan of the subject but little else.

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Staci Layne Wilson

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