- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

“Taking Lives,” a self-devouring murder thriller, should be marketed as a toxic package deal: at once an affected, disgraceful and ridiculous creep-out.

Those of us who found “The Salton Sea” (2002) stylish and distinctive must think again, as “Taking Lives” reunites the same director, D.J. Caruso, with the same cinematographer and production designer. The new movie has a different writer, but that little detail won’t fully account for the recurrent tackiness and galloping desperation of its would-be suspenseful and sensational elements.

The movie suggests a sadistically overcompensating spawn of several prototypes, from “Psycho” to “Seven” to “Hannibal.” The opening credits evoke the tortured graffiti look that became fashionable because of “Seven,” and one entire sequence, the discovery of a mass killer’s dank, cavernous hideaway, is obviously cannibalized from the superior blood-curdler.

The prologue depicts the killer’s emergence, 20 years in the past, while running away from home and traveling on a lonely country road in Quebec. In the present, his ability to elude capture has so discouraged a hangdog Montreal police official, Tcheky Karyo as Hugo Leclair, that he requests the aid of an FBI profiler when another murder that answers to the dread modus operandi occurs in the city.

Expertise arrives in the glamour-puss contours of Angelina Jolie, a dishy but solitary and brooding Sherlock Holmes called Illeana Scott, who gathers her first emanations by reclining in the shallow grave of the latest victim. She and Leclair seem to have become friendly during training exercises at Quantico years earlier. The detectives already on the case, Olivier Martinez and Jean-Hugues Anglade, provide a cliched contrast of hostile and friendly co-workers. By all rights, the initial resentment shown by Mr. Martinez’s Joseph Paquette should be purged in a torrid love affair with the American consultant. Instead, the filmmakers fix up the heroine with an alleged eyewitness to a murder that more or less coincides with her arrival in Montreal.

An art dealer called James Costa, portrayed by Ethan Hawke, seems to have blundered onto the scene of the killer’s latest assault. The culprit fled, and the witness attempted to administer first aid to the victim, who was beyond earthly care. Compassion may or may not explain Costa’s blood-soaked clothes. It may also be suspicious that he claims to have glimpsed the killer and can provide a facial sketch.

The killer gets a name before he’s unmasked: Martin Asher. The heroine sounds very knowing about his derangement, particularly a need to “live a life different from his own.” He assumes the identity of his victims for varying periods of time. Despite having all this figured out in advance, she’s exposed as quite the chump when it comes to anticipating the character with the guilty secret. He eludes a succession of police traps. The escapes look even more lame as a consequence of Mr. Caruso’s efforts to intensify chase sequences.

Ultimately, a heroine meant to distinguish herself within a masculine professional milieu is reduced to such a swoony and then blundering condition that you begin to wonder if setting up Miss Jolie for mass mockery was the whole point of the project. Moreover, its finishing touches are a good argument for everlasting disgrace. The real love match in this movie links the repulsive with the ludicrous.

*1/2

TITLE: “Taking Lives”

RATING: R (Systematic morbid emphasis, graphic violence and gruesome illustrative details; occasional profanity and sexual candor, with fleeting nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by D.J. Caruso. Screenplay by Jon Bokenkamp, based on a novel by Michael Pye. Cinematography by Amir Mokri. Production design by Tom Southwell. Costume design by Marie-Sylvie Deveau. Editing by Anne V. Coates. Music by Philip Glass.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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