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Film review: 'Bless the Child'

"Bless the Child" is a thoroughly unimaginative supernatural thriller that picks over elements from "The Omen", "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary's Baby" but never improves on any of its borrowings. Lacking the special-effects firepower of such recent exercises as "End of Days" and "The Devil's Advocate", "Bless" emerges as a throwback to a time when filmmakers had to create suspense through characters rather than effects. Good idea -- only when characters are this aggressively obtuse, they aren't likely to win audience empathy.

The genre usually scares up good boxoffice numbers in the first week, and the presence of Oscar winner Kim Basinger should bring in female viewers. But "Bless" lacks staying power, and not too many women are going to appreciate the relentless stupidity of Basinger's character.

Basinger's Maggie O'Connor is portrayed as a level-headed, reasonably intelligent nurse. Then why, with the NYPD and FBI investigator John Travis (Jimmy Smits) eager to back her up, does she go alone, looking like she just stepped out of a beauty salon, to a derelict building in a crime-infested corner of the Bronx to take on the forces of ultimate evil? And why does she take along a gun but never bother to check if it's loaded?

This epidemic of dumbness moves beyond the characters to the writers themselves. For the movie's climax, dozens of state police and FBI agents take off in cars and helicopters for the devil worshippers' estate nearby. Cut moments later to a lonely road in a dark forest where Smits gets out of a car and must ask with a straight face to the only cop in sight, "Where's our backup?"

Where indeed.

The screenplay by Tom Rickman and Clifford & Ellen Green, based on Cathy Cash Spellman's novel, has Maggie, a lapsed Catholic, raising a supposedly autistic child named Cody (Holliston Coleman) after the newborn is dumped on her by a junkie Sister Angela Bettis). Mind you, we see no evidence of autism, but the dialogue constantly tells us that Cody is "special."

She was born on Christmas Eve -- nudge, wink, nod -- when portents and omens point to the coming of another Christ child. (Whatever will theologians think of that plot point?) Cody can make objects spin and heal cancer, but no one seems to notice because everyone is so busy trying to diagnose autism.

Several years later, the kid sister reappears, looking if anything worse but claiming to be fully cured by her new husband, self-realization guru Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell). But Stark clearly is the leader of a devil-worshipping cult. We can tell this from Sewell's dark clothes, bulging eye and nasty smirk.

The filmmakers never quite figure out whether they are making a cop movie or occult thriller. One minute, Cody is a helpless girl in desperate need of protection from a satanic cult. The next, she is healing gunshot wounds and scaring off bad guys with a withering glance. With her paranormal skills, Cody apparently is never in real jeopardy. No wonder the police backup disappeared.

The one smart thing the movie does is downplay its special effects -- for audiences have grown weary of filmmakers hiding behind cinematic trickery.

Chuck Russell competently directs the Toronto-based production. Designer Carol Spier finds, builds or dresses suitably spooky sets and collaborates with cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. in keeping the tones and lighting in the dark, moody range.

And while stars may require makeup artists, hairstylists and designer costumes, didn't anyone ask whether such movie-star glamour is appropriate for a

working-class nurse doing battle with the devil's minions? Maybe she wants to out-glam them.

BLESS THE CHILD

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures and Icon Prods. present

a Mace Neufeld production

Producer: Mace Neufeld

Director: Chuck Russell

Screenwriters: Tom Rickman, Clifford Green,

Ellen Green

Based on the novel by: Cathy Cash Spellman

Executive producers: Bruce Davey,

Robert Rehme, Lis Kern

Director of photography: Peter Menzies Jr.

Production designer: Carol Spier

Music: Christopher Young

Co-producer: Stratton Leopold

Costume designer: Denise Cronenberg

Editor: Alan Heim

Color/stereo

Cast:

Maggie O'Connor: Kim Basinger

John Travis: Jimmy Smits

Cody: Holliston Coleman

Eric Stark: Rufus Sewell

Jenna: Angela Bettis

Cheri: Christina Ricci

Rev. Grissom: Ian Holm

Sister Rosa: Lumi Cavazos

Running time - 113 minutes

MPAA rating: R

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