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(2004) (Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: An FBI profiler tries to crack the mystery behind a serial killer who not only murders his victims, but also then assumes their identities.
Illeana Scott (ANGELINA JOLIE) is a top FBI profiler who's been called to Montreal by police director Hugo Leclair (TCHEKY KARYO) to work on a serial murder case where the perpetrator not only kills his victims, but also assumes their identities. Working with local detectives Joseph Paquette (OLIVIER MARTINEZ) and Emil Duval (JEAN-HUGHES ANGLADE) who aren't happy to have an outsider on their turf, the team has several leads.

One is Rebecca Asher (GENA ROWLANDS) who claims she's just seen her son, Martin (KIEFER SUTHERLAND), on a ferry despite him supposedly being killed nearly twenty years ago. Even better is art dealer James Costa (ETHAN HAWKE) who saw the killer in action and has supplied Scott with a sketch of him. As Scott uses all of that along with her honed skills and intuition, she tries to crack the case, all while Costa appears to be the killer's next target.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
As many people know, one of the big problems facing society in today's technology-based information age is identity theft. Criminals get some or all of your personal information and then act like you in applying for credit cards, racking up bills and causing all sorts of other financial and even social mischief. It's a big problem that results in plenty of headaches for the victims.

Of course, it could be worse. Not only could a criminal steal your financial data and security, but they could also steal your life and thus your entire identity. In other words, after dispatching you, they would become you, assuming your physical appearance, attributes and more. If that sounds far-fetched, well it is as it's the underlying basis of the suspense thriller, "Taking Lives."

Yet another film featuring a savvy law enforcer after a serial killer, the effort is okay for a while, but quickly descends into such preposterousness and a bevy of problems that it nearly turns into a comedy. In fact, many at our advance screening, including yours truly, were laughing at moments that were supposed to be surprising, shocking and/or suspenseful. It's not bad in the "right" way to be fun, however, and thus becomes far too annoying and ridiculous to enjoy even on a guilty pleasure level.

As penned by Jon Bokenkamp ("Preston Tylk") and directed by D.J. Caruso ("The Salton Sea," various TV shows), the early parts of the film feel like a mixture of "Seven" and "The Silence of the Lambs." Most everything is dark and dripping in moody atmosphere as we watch a veteran FBI profiler -- that would be Angelina Jolie who's introduced, lips first, lying in a victim's grave for research -- who's been called in to help a Canadian police force.

They're after the aforementioned identity theft who's been taking lives and identities ever since the opening sequence where we see him ditch his new friend by testing the durability of human flesh vs. vehicular metal and glass.

Accordingly, the plot's credibility comes under question right away. For starters, why would the Canadians call in an American agent to work on their case? Well, we're told that she's an expert in such matters, but beyond her doing the supine thing in the grave and us viewing some close-up shots of her face as she scrutinizes everything she sees, we don't have any deep reason to buy into her legend.

That aside, we have the standard bit where the local male cops don't like her presence as she obviously starts to crack the case. The biggest problem at this moment is that we've seen such material before (including the overall hunt down the serial killer element) and the filmmakers haven't exactly made it terribly exciting, suspenseful or intriguing.

The last bit is supposed to come from having Ethan Hawke playing a "is he or isn't he the killer" character who claims he witnessed the perp and now seems to be his next target. Unfortunately, Caruso and company don't do a stellar job of playing with our suspicions, especially after the killer is identified. That occurs long before the film is over and thus the effort has to rely on trying to deliver some shocking twists to keep us in our seats until the end credits roll.

The problem is that one of the big twists is given away right around the time of the killer's unveiling, while another is far too easy to predict (for various reasons, but also because a character wouldn't be able to get away with what he does without a public outcry for a certain vicious form of behavior).

The point is moot by the time that rolls around anyway, as a series of preposterous plot developments and character actions will leave most viewers laughing at or at least disillusioned with the overall effort. I understand what the filmmakers are trying to do with those particular moments -- building suspense in a "look out he's behind you" sort of fashion. Yet, it's so clumsily conceived and executed that the result is more likely to be incredulous laughter rather than terrified suspense. That's okay in a comedy but is as deadly as a serial killer in a film like this.

Jolie ("Beyond Borders," the "Lara Croft" films) is actually okay in the role, but isn't given much of a chance to do anything due to lack of character depth or growth. Hawke ("Training Day," "Gattaca") is also decent playing the nebulous quality of his character (and has some funny lines of brief comic relief), but likewise is shortchanged by the script.

Although they suffer from the same problems, the more interesting characters are played by Tcheky Karyo ("The Good Thief," "The Core"), Olivier Martinez ("S.W.A.T." "Unfaithful") and Jean-Hughes Anglade ("Betty Blue," "Queen Margot) as the local cops who are also trying to solve the case. Perhaps the film would have been better had it focused more on them.

Kiefer Sutherland ("Phone Booth," TV's "24") and Gina Rowlands ("Playing by Heart," "Hope Floats") are also present, but not around long enough to make any sort of difference.

Imitation factors aside, the film technically looks terrific, although the gritty and foreboding "Seven" atmosphere evaporates about midway through. It's just too bad that not as much effort was put into making the characters and basic story more compelling and engaging as was creating that aura and trying to knock off viewers' socks with the "big twists." Since they don't work and the film turns unintentionally funny, it doesn't seem likely that others will want to steal this one's identity and attributes for their own gain. "Taking Lives" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 15, 2004 / Posted March 19, 2004

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