A film review by Craig J. Koban

TAKING LIVES jjj

2004, R, 103 mins.

Illeana Scott: Angelina Jolie / Paquette: Olivier Martinez / Costa: Ethan Hawke / Leclair: Tcheky Karyo / Hart: Kiefer Sutherland / Mrs. Asher: Gena Rowlands

Directed by D.J. Caruso /  Written by Jon Bokenkamp /   Based on the novel by Michael Pye

 

Taking Lives (double-sided) Original Movie Poster

TAKING LIVES is yet another retread into the dark and lurid film noir jungle that is known as the serial killer picture.  I think these types of films have come a long way over the years.  It’s not so much that the villains want to kill people in these films, but they also seem to take a great amount of satisfaction in their killing.  Moreover, the criminals also make their killings very personal, sometimes even literary or poetic. 

In SEVEN, the serial killer follows and patterns his crimes on the seven deadly sins.  In TAKING LIVES, the killer not only willfully kills his victims, but also adopts their own identities, “taking their lives” so to speak.  TAKING LIVES owes a considerable debt, visually at least, to David Fincher’s already mentioned crime masterpiece, and it pains itself to be as shocking, violent, and stylish as well.  Director DJ Caruso does a genuinely admirable job, and the film is effective to a large degree.  It's nice to see a thriller work well because it seems more preoccupied with plot than it does fantastic revelations or huge twists.  The twists are there, to be sure, but they are more or less predictable and can be spotted a mile away.  The film’s final act is also as ludicrous as it gets, but TAKING LIVES is a modestly good time at the movies, and here’s a refreshing twist…it's about a Canadian serial killer.  Who said us Canucks could not be nuttier than a fruitcake? 

The gorgeous Angelina Jolie plays FBI profiler Illeana Scott, who is based in Washington but makes her way to a special assignment in Montreal.  It seems that she has an old friend up in Quebec, a police captain named Leclair (played by that actor with the wonderfully rich accent, Tchecky Karyo) who is on the prowl for a terrible serial killer.  Of course, the presence of a Yankee interfering with their investigation does not bode well for Leclair’s colleagues, most notably Duval (Jean-Hughes Anglade) and Pacquette (played by that pretty boy that still needs a bit more time in the actor’s studio, Oliver Martinez).  Nevertheless, this Can/Am team tries to break new ground in the case, despite the fact that Jolie’s methods are a bit unorthodox.  In one opening scene, she is shown lying in the dirt grave where a victim is found.  That is some offbeat, New Age criminal investigative work if you ask me. 

Yet, Illeana does manage to break some ground in the case.  She immediately interrogates a strange young painter named James Costas (played by the poor-man’s Tom Cruise, Ethan Hawke).  James, being an artist, offers the police and Illeana some aid by telling them that he can sketch the killer, seeing as he was a witness to the killer’s latest crime.  His sketch provides a breakthrough for the police, and subsequently puts Jolie on the trail of Martin Asher (the always creepy Kiefer Sutherland) a man that was believed to have been killed 20 years ago.  However, his mother (Gena Rowlands) seems to have her suspicions that Martin is alive and well in Montreal. 

Illeana and company then decide to hatch out a plan to lure out Martin, whom is suspected in the killings.  Illeana decides, with James’ okay, to use him as bait to lure out Martin and capture him.  James is a bit lukewarm, to say the least, but eventually capitulates.  Of course, Illeana’s plan does not involve her falling for the young artist, which eventually allows her to come to the conclusion that she is slowly becoming a liability in the case.  Leclair convinces her to stay, of course, despite her own misgivings. 

I mean, Illeana is a truly gifted agent, and uses a wide variety of techniques to investigate the crimes.  She develops specific timelines and even  notices the most minute of details that others would clearly miss.  She too is the only one with the intellectual fortitude to spot that the killer picks each new victim that is a few years older than the previous one and that the killer then steals his identity.  Clearly, this means he must be a person that is so completely screwed up that another’s identity seems more palatable than his own.  It's one thing to kill your victims, but then to engage in identity theft, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back! 

TAKING LIVES works well on several levels.  One of the first admirable qualities is placing the setting in modern day Montreal.  Lots of modern films are shot in Canada for cost-effective reasons (Vancouver or Toronto is often used to pass for LA and New York respectively) but this time the film takes place in Canada, and Caruso has a nice way of bathing the screen with some beautiful Montreal landmarks.  There is no doubt that this is a different type of city than  LA, New York, or Chicago of past film noirs.  Visually, the film is a bit of a nice breath of fresh air, and although it does not make the film any less routine as a thriller, it at least affords the viewers with something new to look at and engage actively in.  Thankfully, speaking as a Canadian, the film also appears authentic in its French officials and law enforcement.   

On a performance level, TAKING LIVES is a stellar film.  Angelina Jolie is such a wonderfully gifted actress on top of being great to look at.  She’s one of those unique screen personas that effectively bridges the gap between overt sex appeal and intelligence, wit, and cunning.  She’s kind of a cold fish that later warms up, but there’s a forceful determination, pluck, and icy resolve to her willingness to crack the case, and you never doubt her in the role.  After misfires that were the TOMB RAIDER films, it sure is nice to see Jolie sink her teeth into an interesting and intriguing protagonist. 

I also liked and appreciated the work of Ethan Hawke, who captures the confusion and pathos of the witness who is required to help the police with their investigation.  He plays the part broadly and quietly at the same time, which also simultaneously inspires our sympathies for him as well as our suspicions.  He seems earnest and honest, but something just is never quite right about this fidgety man.  Kiefer Sutherland, as he was in his voice over work in PHONE BOOTH, once again plays an antagonist with a cold, detached aggressiveness that could explode at anytime.  He’s one of those bad guys that speaks so quietly, so softly, and so specifically that the calmness in his voice inspires so much disdain and hatred.  Martinez is the film’s only weak spot in terms of performances, and feels more like a pretty boy trying to play a police officer than a real cop.  He’s wooden and stiff compared to the other more accomplished actors on screen. 

The film is also very well plotted, and establishes its characters and story well.  From its opening moments to its early scenes with Jolie’s investigative techniques, TAKING LIVES is well-defined and considerably less preposterous than a handful of the thrillers that have been released lately.  The film seems less worried about shocking and surprising us than it does telling a grounded story, and that’s noteworthy.  The film is also bathed in lush and dark cinematography and Caruso makes the most of his settings and locales.  He also has an astute sense of timing and pacing, especially in a few moments of well-telegraphed scares.   

The film is not perfect by any definitions, and it does have its inherent weaknesses.  The relationship between Illeana and James seems a bit forced and convenient, and I have a hard time believing that a hard-nosed FBI agent would fall for the flowery and lofty artist in James.  Their relationship seems less authentic and more a plot element that is needed to propel the film forward.  The revelation of the true nature of the serial killer is not really that particularly surprising either and can be spotted in advance if you pay attention to the film early on. 

As a thriller that leaves you hanging, TAKING LIVES is not a masterstroke work.  This is especially true in the film’s final act, which ends on such a ridiculous and false  note that I nearly spent those few minutes feeling that it almost single-handedly ruined the film.  It’s a resolution that fails to inspire, excite, or resonate with any level of believability.  For a film that builds to a  big crescendo, the film’s conclusion leaves a lot to be desired.  Its one of those endings that seem to be one of many that was shot, and the evil omnipotent force that are test screenings maybe paved the way for this choice instead of a wiser, more thoughtful conclusion.  This is a shame, because TAKING LIVES could have been so much more.  It begins seriously, but ends moronically. 

Yet, as a thriller, TAKING LIVES works and is entertaining and fairly absorbing.  Its kind of hit-or-miss on a story level, but it does contain wonderfully realized individual scenes of tension that has some really good performances.  Its one of those thrillers that feels altogether familiar and different at the same time.  I think its growing increasingly difficult for filmmakers to make strong pictures in the genre of serial killer noir, and TAKING LIVES may be a bit too derivative for its own good.  However, it does attain a level of status slightly above routine and predictable thrillers and just below the type of creepy eeriness that films like SEVEN and THE CELL have successfully created.   On certain levels, TAKING LIVES is a worthwhile thriller that genuinely intrigues and sustains interest, and most thrillers can’t begin to brag of doing that, especially “those we do not speak of.”

 
 

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