Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Taking Lives

1.5/4

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Tcheky Karyo, Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Kiefer Sutherland

The version being reviewed is unrated.  For the record, the theatrical cut is rated R for Strong Violence including Disturbing Images, Language and Some Sexuality

I remember shortly before "Taking Lives" came out the studio released the first ten minutes as a marketing ploy.  It was a scene featuring the then-unknown Paul Dano and Justin Chatwin (who is fantastic) as the killer and his first victim.  It's the best part of the movie, which I suppose makes sense from a marketing standpoint, since once word got out about how awful the rest of it was, no one would see it.

"Taking Lives" is a serial killer movie, and as is the case with almost all serial killer movies, it has a gimmick.  In this case, the killer "takes lives" both literally and figuratively.  When he gets tired of one, he kills someone who doesn't look like he will be missed and then inhabits the new person.  It's a compelling idea, or at least it would have been had it been employed with any degree of intelligence.  Hasn't anyone in this movie heard of DNA evidence?

A body has just been uncovered on a construction site in Montreal.  It's not the first, and it won't be the last, so the lead inspector, a man named Leclair (Karyo), enlists the help of FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Jolie).  Scott is one kind of crime-fighter.  She only needs the burial spot and the body to figure out everything.  That doesn't stop another body from turning up, only this time there's a witness.  His name is Costa (Hawke), and can show them what the killer looks like.  Naturally, a witness isn't something a killer wants to leave alive, so Costa is in danger, although apparently not enough that he and Illeana are prevented from falling for one another.

"Taking Lives" is one of those rare movies that experiences a drop in intelligence with every passing minute.  I'm not kidding; each scene is dumber than the one before it.  The majority of the film is barely watchable, but the final act is just awful.  It's stupid, drawn out, and approaching the level of "88 Minutes" in terms of absurdity.  For those of you who were unfortunate enough to sit through that crapfest, you'll know how much those words are meant to sting.

The two leads, Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke, are talented actors, but they're clearly slumming for a paycheck here.  Neither of them gives a bad performance (except when the script fails them), but they're clearly slumming for paychecks.  They pocket a few million a piece so they can get back to things that they really care about, which for Hawke is his stuff with Richard Linklater and Jolie's charity work.  And while the two actors generate some heat together, it feels shoehorned in by nervous (and clueless) studio executives.  Adding insult to injury it features a sex scene that's so badly choreographed that it becomes unintentionally funny.

Their co-stars can't even manage that faint of praise.  It's hard to waste the talent of the great Tcheky Karyo, but he's flat here.  Karyo looks bored.  Olivier Martinez, who was solid in "Unfaithful," is just awful here.  I'm surprised he wasn't singled out for a Razzie.  Gena Rowlands and Kiefer Sutherland appear, but despite their high billing, they're only on screen for five to ten minutes a piece, if that.

This was the feature film debut of D.J. Caruso after the independent film "The Salton Sea" (starring Val Kilmer) and about a dozen things on TV (none of which, I might add, have gone anywhere).  He must have had damaging pictures.  Regardless, it's a prime example of how painful a bad mystery can be.  Foreshadowing is crucial in thrillers, but he highlights important clues with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  And that's just the start of the film's problems.

As bad as the first hour is, it's at least marginally watchable.  The same cannot be said about the film's final act, which is just awful.  In addition to following a (obligatory) twist that's insulting stupid, it never wants to end.  The film goes on for 20 minutes longer than it needs to.   Apparently not content with plunging his film into Bad Serial Killer Movie 101, Caruso adds some overacted, badly realized melodrama to the mix.

Movies like "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Seven" can make you realize how good a serial killer movie can be when made with intelligence and skill.  Movies like "Taking Lives" make you realize how awful they can be when they're made by a hack.

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