TAKING LIVES – Blu-ray review

“Taking Lives” is not a bad crime thriller; it’s just a tired one.

Angelina Jolie stars as a beautiful FBI agent helping to track down a serial killer. Remind you of anything? I mean, haven’t Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver, Ashley Judd, and any number of other beautiful actresses played similar roles in similar serial-killer mysteries? Hollywood’s fascination with sex and violence never ends.

This one has the distinction of being well acted and well paced, with a couple of surprises and a few grisly scenes, but it still feels like something we’ve all seen before. Indeed, not even the high-definition Blu-ray transfer seems like anything out of the ordinary.

The 2004 movie gets its title from a murderer who steals his victims’ identities, first making sure they have no relatives or friends and then living out their lives, complete with their driver’s licenses and social security cards, often living in their own homes or apartments. The murderer takes their lives, so to speak, and he’s been doing it for some twenty years. The film tells us he’s “like a hermit crab. When he outgrows one shell, he starts looking for a new one.” Since the film begins with a flashback to what is apparently the killer’s first murder as a late teenage boy two decades earlier, we have to assume the killer would today be a man in his late thirties. That’s probably already too much information for the viewer to know if the film intends to be an effective mystery.

The filmmakers based the screenplay on a novel by Michael Pye, set in Montreal, Canada, where every other movie these days seems to get made, and there is little explanation why the Montreal police would bring in an FBI profiler of serial killers, Illeana Scott (Jolie), from Washington, DC, to work on a case out of the country. But the FBI has been tracking this guy for years, so there she is, helping out an old friend named Leclair (Tcheky Karyo), the police superintendent who heads up the case.

Agent Scott is very good at what she does, and later in the story she explains why she is so very dedicated to so macabre a profession. She literally throws herself into her work, hardly sleeping while on a case. She calls it compulsion, although Ms. Jolie never seems to convey any real feeling of the character’s compulsive behavior. In fact, she appears rather placid and reserved through most of the film, perhaps part of the character’s intentional facade. Like all cops in all movies, however, she is fond of breaking rules, so expect throughout the film for the character to act in unexpected, or at least unusual, ways.

Along the course of the investigation, Scott encounters the typical characters and events required in this kind of thriller. For instance, she meets an art dealer, James Costa (Ethan Hawke), who has witnessed one of the brutal murders the police are investigating and who has caught a glimpse of the murderer. Considering that Scott is a gorgeous woman and Costa is a handsome guy, their attraction for one another should come as no surprise.

Kiefer Sutherland appears as a suspect in the proceedings, a mysterious fellow named Hart, played in Sutherland’s most menacing style. And Gena Rowlands appears as Mrs. Asher, the mother of a man who is being sought as the killer. She hasn’t seen her son since he disappeared from her house twenty years before, and she has always presumed him dead; that is, until she reports to the police that she just saw him recently and that he fits the description of the person they’re looking for. More ominously, she explains that she knows how dangerous her son is.

Oddly, the mother shows Scott and the other policemen pictures of her son when he was very young but none of the boy taken as a late teen, just before he left home. Did she have no such later pictures, even though she has a mantle full of early snapshots of the boy? And why do the police never bother to ask her for a later picture if they think her son may be a suspect in the murders? Did the filmmakers worry that a photo of the teen would have given away too much of the plot and decided instead to make the mother and the police look negligent? I mean, the audience has already seen the boy as a teen in the movie’s prologue, and it doesn’t reveal much about his identity, so what’s the point? Moreover, the killer, supposedly so shrewd and so clever, has been living and murdering successfully all over America but suddenly returns to live and murder in his own home town, knowing he might run into his mother or others who could recognize him? How smart is that? Smart enough to carry the story line forward, I guess.

D.J. Caruso directed the movie, a man whose “Taking Lives” was one of his first big-screen productions after a slew of television crime shows like “The Shield,” “Robbery Homicide Division,” “Dark Angel,” and “Martial Law.” Since “Taking Lives,” he’s done “Disturbia” and “Eagle Eye,” so he’s getting used to a certain type of film. The director’s strong suit is establishing atmosphere, especially creating dark, forbidding scenes reminiscent of “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en”: Hidden doors and secret rooms, murky alleyways, rain-swept streets, dismembered corpses, cryptic messages, that sort of thing.

Despite the movie’s good intentions, however, with vivid characterizations and noir atmosphere, its high spots are mainly its surprises. Unfortunately, by and large one can see most of them a mile away; or at least judge their approach by the amount of time left in the story. One thing I did like, though, was the ending. I honestly didn’t see this one coming, and for a lot of viewers it may make the rest of the film worthwhile.

Still, a movie is more than a couple of twists and turns, whether or not we anticipate them. And, worse, this movie hasn’t enough genuine surprises to offer on the whole. Take away a couple of good moments at the beginning and the end, and you have a standard TV crime drama. Not that that’s bad; but it may not merit the price of a Blu-ray disc in your collection.

Incidentally, the Blu-ray comes in an unrated “extended cut.” I’m not sure what new or modified material is in this extended cut because I never saw the original theatrical release, and WB say nothing about the additions. The only thing I can be sure of is that the extended cut runs about six minutes longer than the regular version and that it contains a pretty racy love scene late in the picture. Maybe the filmmakers threw in a few more gruesome details, too; I couldn’t say.

The Warner Bros. engineers often do a good job transferring their movies to Blu-ray disc, but this isn’t one of their best (or it’s the best they could do with the original print). Using a VC-1 encode, they squeeze the whole movie, plus the extras, onto a single-layer BD25, resulting in a picture quality that looks slightly glassy, overbright, and gritty, with darker areas of the screen lacking ultimate inner detail. Definition can be good in some scenes and only so-so in others, fluctuating between crisp and sharp and soft and blurred. When it’s good, the high-def video looks very, very good, and when it’s not, it’s not. I suspect that most viewers aren’t going to notice the difference between this disc’s high definition and the regular disc’s standard definition except on direct, side-by-side comparisons. Still, the high def is a clear improvement.

The audio choices are lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 5.1, the soundtrack making its presence known early on with some truly subterranean bass. As always, Warners make Dolby Digital the default, so if your sound system has TrueHD capabilities, remember to select it at the start of the movie.

In TrueHD, one notices a somewhat stronger dynamic range than in Dolby Digital, although, to be fair, the movie uses it sparingly, the differences are minimal. The soundtrack utilizes the surround channels sparsely as well, but when they do come into play they, too, are impressive. Environmental sounds, mainly, come through–rain, birds, crowds, trains, and traffic–but the inevitable helicopter flyover reminds one that the audio can be more serious when it needs to be.

The Blu-ray disc includes the same bonus materials found on the DVD edition, and again they are in standard definition. The main thing is a four-part documentary called “Crime Lab: A Taking Lives Documentary in 4 Parts,” the four parts totaling around twenty-one minutes. The parts are “The Art of Collaboration: How the Filmmaking Team Came Together,” five minutes; “Profiling a Director: Inside D.J. Caruso’s Mind,” six minutes; “Bodies of Evidence: Stars Confess Their Secrets of Working on an Ultra-Tense Thriller,” six minutes; and “Puzzle Within the Puzzle: The Teamwork of Caruso and Veteran Editor Anne V. Coates,” about three minutes. Then, there is a two-minute gag reel of bloopers and pranks, perhaps another intentional surprise, considering the nature of the movie.

Finally, there are twenty-nine scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. While English is the only spoken language option, there are subtitles in French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
I wish I could have gotten as worked up about the rest of the film as I did about the ending, but I’m afraid too much of “Taking Lives” is too ordinary for that. It’s an adequate mystery, but it’s one you can figure out pretty far in advance, so it dilutes a lot of the pleasure of the denouement, the final revelation of the killer. Unless you’re a huge fan of Ms. Jolie, you may find that not even a high-definition transfer can make this one work effectively.