on October 18, 2002 by Wade Major
Oscar-winning "Traffic" writer Stephen Gaghan takes a nominal step backward with the middling mystery-thriller "Abandon," a respectable-enough directing debut that nonetheless lacks the distinguishing characteristics one would normally expect from a writer of stature.

Adapted loosely enough from the Sean Desmond book "Adam's Fall" to merit only a "suggested by" credit, "Abandon" centers on the intrigue surrounding the disappearance two years earlier of a charismatic, egomaniacal graduate student named Embry (Heath Ledger look-alike Charlie Hunnam) and the effect that it has on his former girlfriend, Katie (Katie Holmes), when it appears that he's returned and stalking her. While this scenario could easily lend itself to obviousness and some very cheap scare tactics, Gaghan does his best to make it respectable, spending a great deal of time to help forge the characters in the mind of the audience and to communicate their very personal dilemmas. Katie is in the middle of an already-delayed thesis while Detective Wade Handler (Benjamin Bratt), the investigator charged with unraveling the mystery of Embry's disappearance and reappearance, grapples with his own recovery from alcoholism.

Though Gaghan's determination to deliberate on the characters contributes to somewhat languid pacing, it's hard to not admire his willingness to take such risks. There's a moody, efficient intelligence about the film's first half that suggests something more introspective than a run-of-the-mill thriller. Unfortunately, when the time arrives to start wrapping things up, Gaghan opts to play it safe, going with formula over function by employing a very familiar gimmick and some surprisingly clich├ęd twists to nudge the picture over the finish line.

While "Abandon" won't do much for Gaghan's budding career, it isn't likely to do it irreparable harm, either. He clearly knows how to work with actors--Holmes and Bratt are both excellent--and possesses strong enough visual sensibilities that future, better films would seem to be a foregone conclusion--assuming, of course, that he has the courage of his convictions and the willingness to go there. Starring Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, Charlie Hunnam, Zooey Deschanel, Gabrielle Union and Fred Ward. Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Written by Stephen Gaghan. Produced by Lynda Obst, Edward Zwick, Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber. A Paramount release. Thriller. Rated PG-13 for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, some violence and language. Running time: 98 min

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