[Screen It]

(2001) (Jennifer Lopez, Jim Caviezel) (R)

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Drama: As a tough Chicago cop tries to deal with her estranged family, she must also contend with a mysterious stranger who not only saved her life, but has also become romantically involved with her.
Sharon Pogue (JENNIFER LOPEZ) is a tough Chicago cop who's far better at catching the bad guys on the streets with her partner, Robby (TERRENCE HOWARD), than dealing with issues of her personal life. Not only is she single and without any solid relationships, but she's also estranged from most of her family.

Although she's civil to her brother, Larry (JEREMY SISTO), and his wife, Kathy (MONET MAZUR), her relationship with her mother, Josephine (SONIA BRAGA), is strained, and her father, Carl (VICTOR ARGO), essentially disowned her a decade ago after she arrested him for beating Josephine.

Sharon's life changes forever, however, when a mysterious stranger, Catch (JIM CAVIEZEL), saves her life during a chase and shootout. Although she's often standoffish toward others, Sharon warms up to Catch and his unassuming and amiable demeanor, even if he won't tell her much about himself. Seemingly something of a disheveled transient, Catch brings groceries each week to a disabled woman, Elanora Davis (SHIRLEY KNIGHT), and helps others for no apparent reason other than being nice and concerned about their welfare. That nebulous nature and identity worries Robby, particularly when he can't pull up any records on the man.

Nevertheless, Sharon begins to fall for him, all while dealing with the announcement that her parents are going to renew their marriage vows. Unsure of how to react to that or Catch's mysterious ways, Sharon finds herself facing the prospect of trying to patch things up with her family as well as the eventual discovery and revelation of Catch's true identity and tragic past.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's interesting, funny and perhaps even a little sad how sophisticated today's moviegoers have become. Such cinematic proficiency and knowledge obviously stems from more advanced filmmaking and storytelling techniques, as well as the plethora of information about filmmaking that's currently at our disposal. Yet, it also comes from the fact that it now seems that we've seen just about every cinematic trick and technique in the book and thus find it harder to be amazed, shocked or entertained without seeing the puppeteer's strings or such efforts long before they're delivered.

It hasn't always been that way, however, particularly in the dawn of moviemaking. Beyond the sheer novelty of the medium, moviegoers of old were often shocked and mesmerized by what filmmakers offered them. In "The Great Train Robbery," viewers were stunned to see a character aiming and then firing a pistol at the camera - and thus seemingly them. It became such a sensationalistic draw that distributors would move the placement of the scene within the film from one showing to the next so as to maintain its shock value.

Horror films, of course, had the most of just that, and over the ensuing decades all the way up to the original release of "The Exorcist," there were reports of people fainting and even vomiting from the related sights. Of course, such material now mostly seems quaint, and today's filmmakers have to be more imaginative since audiences have become acclimated to such tactics.

Then, in 1999, "The Sixth Sense" came along and blew away most viewers with its huge finale twist. Since then, moviegoers are now on the constant lookout for clues leading up to such events, especially if a certain film seems like it might have various surprises or related substance.

This week's release of "Angel Eyes" certainly seems to be one of those films. That's not only due to the title that suggests some otherworldly material, but also the basic story and the often eerie and/or suspenseful aura that occasionally flows forth from the proceedings.

As directed by Luis Mandoki ("Message in a Bottle," "When A Man Loves A Woman") - who works from a screenplay by Gerald DiPego ("Instinct," "Phenomenon") - the multi-genre story concerns a strange and somewhat mysteriously creepy, but otherwise amiable man who saves a cop's life and does other "unnatural" things such as being nice and helpful to complete strangers.

We naturally sense that something's odd and perhaps supernatural about him (particularly when he makes it to the pivotal life-saving scene in what seems like too little time for him to humanly do so) and thus set off on what's the equivalent combination of playing cinematic detective while trying to figure out how the magician - or in this case, the director - is pulling off his tricks. Accordingly, every bit of dialogue, action and directorial effort becomes a potential clue for us to use in solving the mystery regarding the origins, presence and goal of that stranger.

The only thing is that there are no supernatural elements involved, no matter our preconceptions, the studio's marketing efforts and/or the filmmaker's style that occasionally suggest otherwise. Those who don't figure that out until the end will likely be disappointed, but those who do, or simply know going in that this is a "straight" drama about damaged people will likely find it to be moderately entertaining.

In fact, it's somewhat similar in theme and underlying plot to "The Fisher King," although the truth about the mystery man - much of what's supposed to keep us glued to the film - is revealed too soon and really isn't a revelation worthy of all the anticipation leading up to it.

Nevertheless, it's an intriguing if not particularly novel look at how people react to personal hardships, and it's those characters, and the performances delivered by the actors embodying them, that make the picture work and often engage the viewer. Of course, it doesn't hurt that a romance develops between the two leads, and while that's obviously not original either, the way in which the filmmakers have staged and executed such material makes those moments work.

While it's not entirely credible that the tough cop character played by Jennifer Lopez ("The Wedding Planner," "The Cell") - in a role that harks back to her appearance in "Out of Sight" - would let the mystery man, effectively embodied by Jim Caviezel ("Frequency," "The Thin Red Line"), into her life without knowing more about him - unless there was a supernatural element involved - the scenes where the two flirt and do their romantic courtship thing constitute the film's best moments.

Not only does DiPego's dialogue feel natural and unforced, but the chemistry between Lopez and Caviezel's characters is also rather palatable and highly entertaining to behold, and most viewers will eat up such moments. When in more dramatic rather than flirtation mode, the two still deliver solid performances (particularly Lopez who near perfectly mixes toughness, vulnerability and humor into her character), even if the filmmakers can't settle on what genre into which the film should ultimately fall.

Although that's not a horribly debilitating problem, it does prevent the film from maintaining any sort of momentum - be it dramatic, romantic or yes, even supernatural - and the constant switching of storytelling gears may begin to grind a bit on some viewers' nerves and patience. That's particularly true when certain scenes and ancillary characters seem to come out of the blue, as if preexisting additional footage about them was left on the cutting room floor.

Beyond the romance and the mystery surrounding Caviezel's character, the rest of the film deals with the protagonist and her relationship with her estranged family, played by Sonia Braga ("Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Milagro Beanfield War") and Victor Argo ("The Yards," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai") as her parents and Jeremy Sisto ("Without Limits," "Suicide Kings") as her brother who's followed their father's example of domestic abuse.

While also not novel, such scenes are dramatically solid. There's also a terrific emotional moment where Lopez's character recalls a rare happy childhood event and the filmmakers thankfully don't wrap up such material with a tacked on, let's feel good Hollywood ending. The very ending of the film, however, does have what's presumably an unintentional, howl-inducing mistake - especially considering some earlier pivotal material -- a point brought out by a viewer, quite loudly, at our screening. See if you catch it.

I'll admit that I was one of those suckered into believing some sort of supernatural element was at play, and spent some time trying to figure it out before it was revealed. Since you now know that not to be the case, you won't waste your time and thus can watch the movie for what it is - a less than perfect and often uneven, but nevertheless moderately enjoyable picture that benefits from the presence of and chemistry between its two leads. "Angel Eyes" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed May 14, 2001 / Posted May 18, 2001

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