** (out of 5)
March 19, 2004
Angelina Jolie as ILLEANA
Ethan Hawke as COSTA
Kiefer Sutherland as HART
Oliver Martinez as PAQUETTE
Gena Rowlands as MRS. ASHER
Directed by: D.J. Caruso
BY KEVIN CARR
From the opening credits, it was nearly impossible to shake the feeling that “Taking Lives” was desperately trying to be the next “Seven.” The problem with trying to emulate greatness is that so often, you fail. I guess you’d have to give “Taking Lives” an A for effort, simply for their bold “Seven” rip-offs. Not just the similar opening credits, but a later scene where they enter the serial killer’s dingy apartment to find stacks of notebooks and a seedy bed.
The movie takes place in Montreal, where a body is discovered in a construction site. FBI Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is brought in as a consultant to help the local police. They soon discover that the killer they are looking for is a hermit crab. He steals the identities of his victims and lives their lives after they are dead. While helping the police, Scott begins to fall for the chief witness (Ethan Hawke).
There have been so few well crafted serial killer movies over the years. Only a handful stand out. “Silence of the Lambs” was excellent. “Seven” was great as well (although the story did break down when the killer changed his plans mid-stream). Instead of living up to these rare greats, “Taking Lives” simply cannot resist barreling head-first into all the standard cliches of the serial killer genre.
In every serial killer movie, the cops are flummoxed while the killer taunts them. It is always pointed out how brilliant these killers are and how they always want to be caught. But that’s a load of B.S., and we all know it. Ted Bundy did not want to get caught. Jeffrey Dahmer did not want to get caught. Ed Gein did not want to get caught. These whack jobs never sent taunting letters to the police. They got caught by screwing up or getting sloppy – not as a desperate cry for help.
Whenever the film is given a chance to go for the cliche or try a new approach, it goes for the cliche. We have to sit through a barrage of rotten red herrings. We have to listen to the arrogant speech by the killer in the end. We have to be lectured on serial killer mentality by people who clearly don’t understand the serial killer mentality.
I was speaking with another audience member after the screening, and he pointed out that it is usually the writer’s fault. He so rightly pointed out that writers just can’t write scenes without dialogue – even when they should.
Even with the cliches, a serial killer movie can be decent if it keeps you guessing. The problem with “Taking Lives” is that I guessed everything that happened in the film – sometimes an hour before it happened. Never once was I surprised.
To make the story even murkier, too many things were thrown in to keep you guessing, but they were obvious fake-outs. There’s a saying in film that if you put a gun on the wall in the first act, it had better be used by the end of the second act. In “Taking Lives,” so many guns were hung on the wall and not used that they became annoying.
The acting in the film was about 50/50. Angelina Jolie does a decent job, but for the amount of time they spend on her character, she really doesn’t have that much to work with. Ethan Hawke never really hits his mark, and Kiefer Sutherland is completely wasted in the film. There was some intriguing mystery about Mrs. Asher (Gena Rowlands), but all these points are left to fizzle out rather than explore further. (And quite honestly, I think it would have been more interesting to have learned more about Mrs. Asher than Agent Scott.)
Based on the limited advertising I had seen, I had thought “Taking Lives” was going to be a taunt psychological thriller about the police tracking a string of shed identities. This, I thought was a clever premise and one I had not seen done. However, the film breezes through the string of hermit crab shells in favor of developing the underwhelming character of Agent Scott.
Like too many poorly written thrillers, things seem to work in context, but when you think about how things played out, it just doesn’t make sense. It is impossible to go through the list of plot holes in the movie without giving away the ending, so you’ll have to trust me on this. (Or don’t. See the movie and see them for yourself. But remember: You’ve been duly warned.)