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'Taking Lives' is no mystery

Angelina Jolie may have trouble figuring out who the villain is in her latest film, but moviegoers won't have the same problem.

Published March 18, 2004

[Photo: Warner Bros.]
Angelina Jolie is an investigator and Ethan Hawke a possible witness in Taking Lives, about a serial killer who murders his victims and then assumes their identities.
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For its first hour, Taking Lives is exciting, suspenseful and sexy, and it delivers a few scares so shocking they could make you drop your Goobers.

And then it falls apart.

Of course, that's always the challenge with a killer-on-the-loose whodunit: It's so much easier to set up a mystery, to toss around clues and suspects, than it is to resolve the puzzle.

The movie, which stars Angelina Jolie, is being marketed as a tricky mystery that abounds with shocking twists and turns. It teases: You won't know who the killer is until the end.

Baloney. Halfway through the movie, you'll know who the killer is. The guy next to you will know. The couple watching Starsky & Hutch in the adjacent theater will know.

And if you've seen the movie's trailer or television commercials, you'll know the ending even faster.

Plus, it's a bad idea to have a climax that doesn't resolve minor plot matters - such as, say, the killer remaining at large - and then wrap things up with a coda that takes place seven months later.

Where did the failed finale originate? You'd have to ask director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) or Jon Bokenkamp, who curiously earned credits for "screenplay" and "screen story."

Though the film claims to be based on Michael Pye's novel, it only takes the title and uses Pye's plot as a starting point. The film retains the names and occupations of several of Pye's characters while making them otherwise very different.

Jolie's character, Illeana Scott, was created for the film. She's an FBI profiler who uses unconventional methods to track down murderers (now that's original). Scott is called in when evidence of a serial killer shows up in Montreal, because everyone knows a country as tiny as Canada would lack its own investigative agency.

Scott figures out that the killer for years has been literally "taking lives" - killing men close to his own age and size and assuming their identities. Obviously he must be clever and elusive. He then immediately is spotted wandering around by, of all people, his mom (Gena Rowlands).

Soon Scott is checking out a local art dealer (Ethan Hawke, Training Day), who claims he witnessed one of the killings and tried to save the victim. He's being followed by a mysterious figure played by Kiefer Sutherland (TV's 24). Oh, and French stud Olivier Martinez (Unfaithful) plays a detective. He complains a lot and looks pretty.

Sure it's silly, but it's entertaining, packed with action and intrigue. It also comes off a bit misogynistic.

Scott turns out to be a pretty lousy investigator, especially for someone recruited from another country. She makes bad conclusions, and she beds someone principal to her investigation. Caruso films her throughout as if she's in a Cinemax erotic thriller: The camera constantly lingers on Jolie's famously fleshy lips and the crests formed by a parade of preposterously tight sweaters.

Granted, he's good at it: Jolie has never looked sexier, and the bedroom scene is steamy, if short. The long, leering looks at Jolie's character also pay off in later scares, as Caruso occasionally punctuates them with shocks.

But it's harder to give Taking Lives the benefit of the doubt when the plot machinations add up to an obvious villain who doesn't do anything terribly scary. That might be enough for fans of the sexy stars, but fright fans probably would be better served with the new Dawn of the Dead.

Taking Lives

Grade: C-

Director: D.J. Caruso

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Olivier Martinez, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Tcheky Karyo

Screenplay: Jon Bokenkamp, based on the novel by Michael Pye

Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexuality

Running time: 97 min.

[Last modified March 17, 2004, 13:41:11]

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