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Dustin Putman

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Taking Lives (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by D.J. Caruso
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Tcheky Karyo, Kiefer Sutherland, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Paul Dano, Justin Chatwin
2004 – 103 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence, language, sex, and brief nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 20, 2004.

The latest psychological thriller concerning the search for a serial killer, "Taking Lives" places squarely between the best (1991's "Silence of the Lambs," 1995's "Se7en") and worst (1999's "The Bone Collector," 2004's "Twisted") of the genre. While offering up little in the way of originality or inspiration, it does feature a twist in the final scene that was unforeseen and admittedly clever. That is more, at least, than can be said for the thoroughly derivative and laughable "Twisted."

When a body is found buried at a construction site carrying the same MO as several other murders over the years, Montreal police detectives enlist Pennsylvania FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) to help them with their investigation of a serial killer. Their two major leads are James Costa (Ethan Hawke), a nervous art dealer who witnessed the latest murder, and Mrs. Asher (Gena Rowlands), who claims to have recently seen her grown son, presumed dead for nineteen years, on a ferry. While Illeana begins to piece together the killer's routine, which includes murdering gradually older men and taking their identities each time, she finds herself uncontrollably drawn to James—a sexual attraction she knows can only spell disaster.

"Taking Lives" could best be described as a motion picture from filmmakers far more ambitious and talented than what the script demands. From a strict screenwriting perspective, the movie is threadbare and forgettable, its only novelty coming from a surprising plot twist that arrives far too late in the game to hold much worth. Before this third act development, the viewer is stuck wading through murky investigative material he or she has seen a hundred times before, intercut with an escalating romance that is clearly ill-fated from frame one. And even after the twist, the viewer closes their fists on thin air. There is little depth, and no emotional weight, to any of it.

Directed by D.J. Caruso (2002's "The Salton Sea"), the biggest blunder of "Taking Lives" is its treatment of Illeana Scott, a feisty heroine whom you learn absolutely nothing about through the course of the film aside from her skill in forensic profiling. She is a blank slate, a gal who apparently has no past, no dreams outside of her profession, and no hobbies. And when the end credits begin, one is left wondering where she will go next because we still have no idea who she is. Angelina Jolie (2003's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—The Cradle of Life") has proved time and again that she is a major acting talent and a stunning beauty, but she needs to pick her film roles better. She is left stranded in "Taking Lives," praying for some character meat to dig into that never comes. When Jolie fails to receive this wish, she opts to pull out her breasts.

The supporting cast is unusually good for the genre, with Ethan Hawke (2001's "Training Day") seductively alluring as James Costa; Olivier Martinez (2002's "Unfaithful") as French Canadian detective Paquette; and the ever-classy Gena Rowlands (1998's "Playing by Heart") as Mrs. Asher. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland (2003's "Phone Booth") looks threatening for only a couple minutes and receives mindboggling third billing and a quick paycheck. So commanding on TV's "24," Sutherland has yet to recapture the same hold on the big screen that he once had; lengthier parts could only help.

Elegantly photographed by Amir Mokri (2003's "Bad Boys II"), who takes advantage of his, for once, on-location setting of Montreal, Canada, "Taking Lives" looks appealing and succeeds at feeling moody. The opening credits sequence, despite practically being a rip-off of "Se7en," boasts showmanship, and there are a few jump scares that avoid predictability and actually work within their context. Past the glossy exterior, however, "Taking Lives" is tediously conventional and ho-hum. You may find the very memory of it drifting from your thoughts the second it is over.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman