Taking Lives

(2004) ** R
103 min. Warner Brothers. Director: D.J. Caruso. Cast: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Olivier Martinez.

Taking Lives plays one of the more interesting gambits in recent cinematic history: by being willfully stupid and obvious for most of its running time, this serial-killer thriller lulls the audience into one gasp-worthy, rug-pulling moment that, while stupid, isn't exactly obvious. I can't honestly say your time would be well-spent to sit through a 90-minute replay of Se7en for that one moment (which also seriously tests the bounds of good taste), so let's call it close, but no cigar.

Angelina Jolie plays Illeana Scott, an FBI profiler brought in by Canadian police to help nab a serial killer who steals the identity of each victim in a hopeless attempt to improve his self-worth. The angle of compounding serial murder with identity theft is a good one for the aughts, but screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp (working from Michael Pye's novel) proves himself too lazy to make the plot convincing moment to moment, much less in hindsight. This devious movie serial killer, like many movie serial killers, has a remarkable facility to function well and appear quite normal, even personable, unlike the fractured loners of reality.

Setting the picture in French-Canadian territory provides a good excuse to cast Olivier Martinez and Jean-Hugues Anglade as detectives and Tcheky Karyo as Jolie's top-cop buddy. As the killer's dotty mother, Gena Rowlands pleasantly makes a meal of the scenery while warning anyone who will listen about her son's dangerous psychology. Complicating matters, the investigators haul in a rattled witness to the killer's latest murder, testing the objectivity of the quickly smitten Scott.

The witness, you see, is a handsome painter given to gallows humor and played by Ethan Hawke. Reluctantly, he agrees to be bait for the killer, leading to a brief chase into a Montreal Jazz Festival crowd and, later, an agreeably spectacular showdown involving the investigators, the witness, Kiefer Sutherland's sinister fugitive, a gun, and two speeding cars. Scenes like these and an insinuating Phillip Glass score (creeping in a mere week after his score for Secret Window) threaten to make something of the movie, but amount to just enough to graduate the material from Ashley Judd to Angelina Jolie (a bigger draw if not a better actress).

The picture's supposed "big twist"--which comes twenty minutes before the one which actually works--should be obvious from the outset to anyone who's endured enough modern mystery flicks, but credit director D.J. Caruso for the ol' college try. Taking Lives has an admirably funky rhythm to it which, had the twist not been hopelessly obvious, might have paid off in spades. Still, the long-played-out Se7en vibe--replete with jumpy credits sequence and fetid squalor--adds nothing to the tired reveals. Like Se7en, Taking Lives fetishizes death by crossing its crime-scene gore with food and sex (Jolie's casually morbid detective likes to study the crime-scene snaps as she eats her dinner).

On the bright side, Caruso's rain shots may just trump David Fincher's, shining back-lit color through watery veils to create a post-impressionistic backdrop for Hawke's anxious painter. With a couple of big jolts and some lurid flair, Taking Lives is, at least, much more trashily entertaining than Caruso's dour The Salton Sea, so I won't protest too much if Caruso heads back to the drawing board.

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