Maybe it’s a cunning move on the part of The Weinstein Company to inaugurate its post-Miramax release schedule with such a perfectly awful excuse for a thriller as “Derailed.” After all, from here the new distributor has nowhere to go but up.

There are few things in cinema more depressing than a suspenseless suspenser, which is what screenwriter Stuart Beattie and director Mikael Hafstrom have cobbled together–I was going to say crafted, but that verb hardly applies in this instance–from a novel by James Siegel (“Collateral”). Like “Unfaithful” before it (which was coincidentally also shot, though far more elegantly, by cinematographer Peter Biziou), “Derailed” begins with an act of infidelity that has unhappy consequences. (In today’s political climate, it would seem impossible to portray a marital collapse that actually works out well for people.) In this case, the plot’s set in motion when Chicago ad man Charles Schine (Clive Owen, sporting an American accent that goes on and off) boards a commuter train for work one morning without the cash to pay for his ticket. Luckily–or not–Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston), a fellow passenger, is willing to give him the needed funds. Thus begins an affair though both Schine and Harris are married with children, Schine having not only a schoolteacher wife (Melissa George) but a diabetic daughter (Addison Timlin) on whom he dotes. Still they proceed from dinner to drinks to a session in a low-rent hotel. Unfortunately, the amorous couple is interrupted by a brutal interloper, the thuggish LaRoche (Vincent Cassel), who beats up the man and takes advantage of the woman while her would-be lover lies battered in the corner. To avoid a scandal, Charles is pressured by Lucinda not to go to the cops–a decision that proves very unwise when LaRoche, now aided by a even bigger bruiser called Dexter (Xzibit), begins blackmailing him. Charles tries to outwit his tormentor–at one point even enlisting Winston (RZA), a colleague at the firm who happens to be an ex-con, to help him–but all his efforts manage to do is bring him more pain, degradation and danger, until a big twist that’s supposed to make us all gasp in surprise. Unfortunately, only the most unobservant or drowsy viewer will have missed the signs pointing to the revelation that have been posted along the way–unless he’s a dumb as Charlie Schine. And after this the movie drags on for another half hour or so, piling absurd climax upon absurd climax in a futile attempt to keep the adrenaline pumping. It ends up seeming both ridiculous and repulsive, all at once.

Presumably those behind “Derailed” thought that what they had on their hands was a sort of mix between “Fatal Attraction” and “Wait Until Dark” in which LaRoche’s apparently insatiable lust, not merely for sex but for money and violence, would serve the same function that Alex Forrest’s vengeful rage did in Adrian Lyne’s movie while giving Cassel the opportunity to do a bargain-basement imitation of Alan Arkin’s Harry Roat. But though “Attraction” was undoubtedly a crudely manipulative potboiler, Glenn Close’s ferocity gave it a frisson that’s entirely lacking here; Cassel’s grimaces and sneers–not much more than a riff on the sort of shtick Richard Widmark did to far greater effect in “Kiss of Death”–are more likely to provoke giggles than shudders; and it frankly gets tiresome to watch Owen playing the schmuck and repeatedly getting punched around. As for Aniston, one is more likely to sympathize with her off-screen tribulations than with those her character supposedly faces here. She’s given so little screen time that Lucinda never becomes anything more than a brittle femme fatale; instead we have to watch Charles getting pummeled for the umpteenth time. And it certainly doesn’t help that she and Owen strike absolutely no sparks as two people supposedly entranced with one another, or that their blandness throws the plot’s periodic dependence on much better films–“North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” “Charade,” to name but a few–into sharper relief.

All of which makes for a distinctly unimpressive American debut for Swedish helmer Hafstrom, whose pacing too frequently comes off feeling haggard and does little to conceal the Grand Canyon-sized holes in the screenplay. Technically “Derailed” is okay, but even on this level it lacks a real consistency of tone–a failing the background score, combining Edward Shearmur’s insistent orchestral music with occasional bursts of rap, shares.

The fact that the Weinstein Company realized it had a loser with “Derailed” is demonstrated by the fact that they barred internet critics from early screenings of the movie, allowing them–at least in the Dallas market–to attend only those on the Thursday night before opening. One can understand the fledgling studio’s desire to keep a stinker like this under wraps as long as possible, but they can’t prevent the truth from getting out in time to serve as a warning to potential first-day viewers. This silly, sleazy stiff is a train-wreck of a movie.