Take away a couple of good moments at the beginning and the end, and you have a standard TV crime drama.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"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.

The 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 in their own homes or apartments. The murderer takes their lives, so to speak, and he's been doing it for some twenty years. We're told he's "like a hermit crab. He outgrows one shell and 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 mystery is to be effective.

The story is set in Montreal, Canada, undoubtedly for economic reasons since that's where every other movie these days seems to be shot, and there is little explanation why Illeana Scott (Jolie), an FBI profiler of serial killers, would be brought in 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.

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. She meets an art dealer, for instance, James Costa (Ethan Hawke), who has witnessed one of the brutal murders being probed and who has caught a glimpse of the murderer. Being 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 involved in the murders? Were the filmmakers worried at this point that a photo of the teen would have given away too much of the story 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 plot forward, I suppose.

The movie was directed by D.J. Caruso, whose credits include one major big-screen production, "The Salton Sea" (2002), and a whole slew of episodes from television crime shows like "The Shield," "Robbery Homicide Division," "Dark Angel," and "Martial Law." The director's strong suit is in establishing atmosphere, especially in 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 with characterizations and atmosphere, however, its high spots are mainly its surprises. But 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 seem 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 DVD in your collection.

Incidentally, the decision-makers at Warner Bros. are issuing the film in an R-rated widescreen edition, an R-rated full-screen edition, and the unrated, widescreen Director's Cut reviewed here, all sold separately. I'm not sure what new or modified material is in the Director's Cut I watched because I never saw the original theatrical release, and WB say nowhere on or in the packaging what the changes are. The only thing I can be sure of is that the Director's Cut runs about six minutes longer than the regular version and that it contains a pretty racy love scene late in the picture. Maybe a few more gruesome details have been thrown in, too; I couldn't say.

The Warner Bros. engineers have been doing an increasingly better job in the past few years transferring their movies to disc, using higher bit rates for stronger, deeper colors and firmer lines and definition. The result with "Taking Lives" is a screen image that extends to an anamorphic ratio of 2.40:1 and a picture quality about as clear and smooth as we might hope for. My only concerns are small: the overall impression is a bit glassy and gritty, and the darker areas of the screen lack inner detail.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 playback makes its presence known early on with some truly subterranean bass. A strong dynamic range is also evident, although sparingly used. The surround channels are utilized sparsely as well, but when they come into play they, too, are effective. Environmental sounds, mainly, come through--rain, birds, crowds, trains, and traffic--but the inevitable helicopter flyover reminds us that the audio can more serious when it needs to be.

For a disc that does not promote itself as a "special edition," this one includes a decent assortment of special extras. The main items are four featurettes: "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," 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 but no chapter insert. While English is the only spoken language option, there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Parting Shots:
I wish I could get 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 a lot of the pleasure of the denouement, the final revelation of the killer, is diluted. Unless you're a huge fan of Ms. Jolie, this one may be a rental.


Film Value