As an actor, John Malkovich has always had a knack for creating fascinating, compelling characters and at times has exceeded the limitations of the material he's been handed. But as a director, the opposite is proven true for his first feature film, "The Dancer Upstairs," in which he's managed to take some pretty promising material and make it less interesting.

It's as if Malkovich has been afflicted with the same filmmaking malady that affects many less-seasoned professionals — he apparently got so caught up with setting the tone and atmosphere that he forgot he was supposed to be telling a story. (At least part of the fault lies with the studio that released the film at 128 minutes, cut from the 134-minute film shown at last year's Sundance Film Festival, which was surprisingly more coherent .)

Still, he did make one really smart decision — casting Javier Bardem, an actor who shares his ability to create fascinating, compelling characters.

Bardem stars as Agustin Rejas, a police detective operating in an unnamed Latin American country. His latest case is a real head-scratcher — he and his partner (Juan Diego Botto) are investigating a series of animal mutilations, vandalism and killings that appear to be connected to a mysterious figure known only as Ezequiel.

But there's little to go on. Worse, the killings seem to suggest there's a potential revolution in the works. And just when the detectives start some making headway on the case, the military steps in.

The uncertainty in Agustin's work mirrors his personal life. He's become bored with his fashion-obsessed wife (Alexandra Lencastre) and finds himself drawn to his daughter's dance instructor (Laura Morante). And then both worlds begin to collide.

This material has a lot of potential, especially since Nicholas Shakespeare has adapted his own novel. But Malkovich was the wrong choice of director. Nothing here has the punch it deserves.

Bardem nearly salvages things single-handedly, though. He even manages to sell us on the relationship between his and Morante's characters, even though it is woefully underdeveloped.

"The Dancer Upstairs" is rated R for strong scenes of violence (gunplay and explosive mayhem), graphic gore, occasional use of strong sex-related profanity, flashes of female and full male nudity, use of crude sexual slang terms and some sex talk, and brief drug content (use of tranquilizers). Running time: 128 minutes.