By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Apr 18, 2002 at 5:22 AM

"High Crimes" and "Murder By Numbers" have a lot in common. Both have a talented yet slumming director (Carl Franklin and Barbet Schroeder, respectively). Both star one of America's foremost leading ladies, Ashley Judd in the former and Sandra Bullock in the latter (incidentally, they appear together in this summer's "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"). And both giddily serve up every cliché possible in their specific genre.

That these movies both offer a story that would be stale on cable and yet somehow end up in theaters nationwide a mere two weeks apart is rather depressing.

Bullock, who also executive produces and clearly bit off more than she can chew, plays a supposedly brilliant homicide detective in the picturesque and small coastal town of San Benito, California.

But before we meet her, we meet high school students Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling) and Justin Pendleton (Michael Pitt). Richard is popular, filthy rich and extremely arrogant. Justin is an outcast. He reads Rimbaud and Nietzche and is supposed to be a genius, but his actions peg him as anything but.

Richard antagonizes Justin in school, but secretly the two are friends. Bored and without parental guidance, the two teens plot the perfect murder. They will kidnap a woman at random, kill her, dump her body in the woods and mislead the police with fake clues and inconsistencies.

Enter Cassie Mayweather (Bullock). Though her new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin), believes otherwise, Cassie believes that Richard and Justin are guilty as soon as she meets them. The hard part is going to be proving it.

And what follows plays out like a less graphic, below average episode of TV's far superior "C.S.I." Every single cop movie cliché is thrown in. For starters, Cassie is a sometimes brilliant "loose cannon" on the force that no one wants to work with. She is always arguing with her boss and she doesn't do well with authority figures.


Borrowing heavily from Mel Gibson's character in "Lethal Weapon," in addition to her aforementioned traits, Cassie also lives alone on a houseboat (Mel has a trailer in "Lethal Weapon") and is depressed due to a traumatic past (Mel's wife is dead; Cassie has an abusive ex-husband in jail).

As if all of that isn't enough, Cassie also does incredibly stupid things that always happen in movies like this. She goes to a crime scene where she knows the killers will be without backup (Sam has mysteriously vanished) and she doesn't carefully inspect rooms while chasing a bad guy, not exactly "brilliant" moves.

The one and only intriguing aspect of "Murder By Numbers" is Gosling's performance. The young actor, who earned raves for his role in "The Believer," is mesmerizing. He gives a loose, assured and charming performance, enlivening almost every scene he's in.

But his performance also adds to another of the movie's many flaws. Neither Richard nor Justin is believable as a murderer. They aren't creepy or sinister in any way. One is cocky and the other geeky. But you're never sold on these guys being capable of what they do, and since they aren't menacing, there is zero suspense.

Bullock, never a good dramatic actress, is woefully miscast. She, too, is not convincing in her role. Everyone is always calling her a brilliant cop, but she never does anything to back this up. She gets hunches and gut feelings, but she never does any great detective work. It's a forced, uncomfortable and weak performance.

Chaplin doesn't fare any better. He is making a career by playing second fiddle to a group of leading ladies. Bullock here, Winona Ryder in "Lost Souls" and Nicole Kidman in "Birthday Girl." He is lifeless and boring here, with a look on his face that suggests he'd rather be anywhere else than where he is.

Watching "Forensic Files" or "NYPD Blue" is far more entertaining and much cheaper than seeing "Murder By Numbers." It's predictable, slow and has absolutely nothing new to offer.

"Murder By Numbers" opens in theaters everywhere on Fri., April 19. Click here for showtimes.