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Solid performances ground mystery-thriller 'Awakening the Zodiac'

Solid performances ground mystery-thriller 'Awakening the Zodiac'
Shane West in the film "Awakening the Zodiac." (Vertical Entertainment)

Shane West and Leslie Bibb play floundering fortune-hunters who find a valuable reel of film in "Awakening the Zodiac," a solid mystery-thriller that takes advantage of the public's ongoing fascination with a never-caught '60s/'70s serial killer. True-crime obsessives may be disappointed that most of this film is fiction; but fans of grubby B-pictures should appreciate how assured the movie is.

Director/co-writer Jonathan Wright emphasizes character over kicks. West and Bibb play Nick and Zoe Branson, spouses who eke out a living buying abandoned storage-lockers and selling anything valuable inside. The costars have good chemistry and bring a sense of desperation to their roles that animates a thin plot.

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When the Bransons inadvertently purchase POV footage of one of the Zodiac Killer's murders, they ask for help decoding it from their crackpot junk-dealer friend, Harvey (Matt Craven). Before long, they're close enough to the truth to attract the interest of the actual Zodiac (Stephen McHattie).

Most of the running-time is spent on clue-tracking and mysterious threats. Only during a tense climactic sequence (followed by a confusing coda) are the heroes in real danger.

Nothing here approaches the brilliance of David Fincher's classic "Zodiac" (or the Zodiac-inspired "Dirty Harry"), but "Awakening the Zodiac" is well-acted and surprisingly nuanced. It's a cautionary tale of how a lack of cash puts two amateur sleuths in a sicko's gun sights.

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'Awakening the Zodiac'

Rating: R, for violence and language

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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