Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Tcheky Karyo, Olivier Martinez
Yep, the opening credits to this film -- and much of its mood -- are an unabashed Se7en rip-off. Too, most -- though not all -- of its plot contrivances are fairly obvious. And, sure, Angelina Jolie hasn't been in a good movie in ages (for that matter, I haven't forgiven Ethan Hawke for Waking Life, and possibly never will). But all in all, Taking Lives isn't an unwatchable thriller.
In fact, cliches and all -- and this film almost never misses any within a hundred miles -- this is one of the more enjoyable examples of the genre to come along in a while. Of course, when the competition includes Twisted, it's not that hard to look pretty good. And unlike last week's opener Secret Window, this film doesn't attempt to be anything more than a standard-issue thriller; it's a con game of a movie, and not an especially fair one. Hell, even the trailer cheats, though that's preferable to it giving away too much -- which, in fact, the trailer for Taking Lives also does, utterly destroying any impact the opening scenes might have had, since you already know where things are leading.
The plot and the characters are both a bit on the silly side. Whoever came up with Jolie's character, super-special agent Ileana, either had a love for the improbable, or a taste for compiling cliches -- possibly both. Ileana is an FBI agent (so what she's doing in Montreal, I never have quite understood) who eschews the standard methods of detection (what a shock) and indulges instead in a mixture of intuition and Philo Vance-style psychological yammering. It's fun, but it's neither fresh nor believable.
Did we really need another detective who "plays by her own rules?" Probably not. Did we need one who makes astounding leaps in logic -- based on pretty much nothing, except perhaps rudimentary psychometry -- and confounds the collective brain power of the Montreal Police Department? Again, no.
The plot itself isn't much of an improvement: A serial killer who specializes in taking over his former victims' lives is on the loose in Montreal, and the cops call in an FBI agent to get to the bottom of things. It all makes little sense, because the locals haven't even had the chance to become baffled before Ileana is called in. It makes even less sense that the murderer has been doing this all over Canada for about 20 years, and yet no one has detected a pattern before the arrival of super-agent Ileana! There are two witnesses who can identify the culprit: his mother (Gena Rowlands, who is heavily featured in the trailer, but absent from the film's advertising) and an art dealer (Ethan Hawke).
But who is this guy now? That's the question that has to be unraveled over the course of the film -- and I'll admit that the movie does a fair job of misdirection in this regard. But at bottom, Taking Lives is mostly just a thrill machine -- yet most of the thrills work on a very basic "boo!" level, the kind of jolts where the viewer jumps and then everyone laughs at him- or herself for having fallen for the gag.
Despite the efforts of director D.J. Caruso and cinematographer Amir Mokri to give the proceedings the kind of dour gloominess of Se7en -- not to mention a semi-downbeat ending -- what emerges is a straighforward "fun" thriller with a climax as jaw-droppingly incredible as it is actually surprising. (I'm not sure how much to pat those involved on the back: The reason it's surprising is that you can't believe anyone would cook this up.)
In any case, Taking Lives is an OK couple of hours at the movies, and is vastly preferable to those pretentious thrillers that want to be something more than a guessing game and a wild ride -- only to then turn out to be neither thrilling, nor really anything else either. Admirers of Kieffer Sutherland, be advised: He hasn't a lot more screen time here than he did in Phone Booth.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke