[Screen It]

(2004) (Ashley Judd, Samuel L. Jackson) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: When her previous lovers are murdered in an apparent serial killing spree, a rookie homicide detective must figure out whether she's being framed or might possibly be the suspect herself.
Jessica Shepard (ASHLEY JUDD) is a beat cop who's just nabbed a murderer and been promoted to homicide detective. Partnered with veteran detective Mike Delmarco (ANDY GARCIA), she's immediately thrust into action when a body is found and appears to be the victim of a serial killer. What's more troubling for Jessica is that it's also a man with whom she had casual sex.

While others obviously think that's grounds to have her removed from the case, Police Commissioner John Mills (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) -- who essentially raised Jessica from a child following her parents' deaths -- says she'll stay due to no evidence against her, that it would ruin her career, and that her presence might lead to the killer's arrest. That doesn't sit well with other detectives, including Lieutenant Tong (RUSSELL WONG) while staff psychiatrist Dr. Melvin Frank (DAVID STRATHAIRN) tries to get inside Jessica's head to see what's really occurring there.

When a second murder takes place and the victim turns out to be another of her brief lovers, the suspicions about her begin to increase. She and others continue to wonder whether it's her doing the deed following alcohol-fueled blackouts, a deranged stranger, or even her former partner and boyfriend, Jimmy Schmidt (MARK PELLEGRINO), who won't accept that they're no longer a couple. When yet another past lover is murdered, Jessica tries to figure out what's going on before anyone else is killed.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
A herring is defined as a common name for several fishes, about 12 inches in length, with short dorsal and anal fins and a scale-less head. Not being a fisherman and even with that definition, I don't think I'd be able to pick one out of an aquatic line-up, let alone identify one by its color alone. That is, except in the movies where they're always red. Not like a Soviet era communist, but instead a purposeful distraction designed to draw one's attention away from a central issue.

While they're often overused and/or badly conceived and executed cinematic clichés, they can be fun if handled with just the right touch. Alas, that's not even remotely the case in "Twisted," a "suspense/thriller" that's not particularly suspenseful or thrilling. It is, however, bad enough and so dated that it's the movie equivalent of old, thawed-out sardines that are really starting to stink up the place.

Basically a reworking of the old Clint Eastwood cop drama-thriller "Tightrope" as taken from a female perspective and filtered through the screenwriting aura of Joe "Basic Instinct" Eszterhas, the film comes off like one of those bad whodunit thrillers that populated the cinema back in the '80s and '90s. In fact, it seems like it was spit out by one of those early screening software programs from that era that relied on formula for the resultant product's plot construction.

I can't say for sure how screenwriter Sarah Thorp (making her feature debut) "penned" the screenplay, but it feels like one of those high concept flicks that was crafted with the surprise ending first and then written forward or backward to get to that point.

Accordingly, and despite the large school of red herrings that swim throughout the production, the finale and identity of the perp is a foregone conclusion not long into the film. As a result, savvy viewers (and those simply paying attention) will then simply have to watch the plot go through its motions as it grinds its way from start to finish.

That wouldn't have been a complete travesty had the film been crafted with some creative flair, but that's not the case. If one's going to utilize such "is he or she the suspect" plot distractions, then they should be done in an imaginative fashion where they're incredibly smart, subtle or conversely so over the top and numerous as to overwhelm the viewer.

Unfortunately, they're just as lame as about every other aspect of the picture, particularly in regard to the protagonist questioning herself and then with the third act explanation behind her behavior.

All of which is surprising considering that it comes from Philip Kaufman, the director of respected films such as "Quills" and "The Right Stuff." Had I not seen his name in the credits and press kit I would have attributed this to the work of a hack or possibly first-time director.

Then there's the presence of the fairly highly profile and well-known cast that, like Kaufman, should have seen this train wreck coming long before it left the station and they signed on the bottom line. I simply can't fathom what -- beyond a paycheck -- led the likes of Ashley Judd, Andy Garcia, Samuel L. Jackson, David Strathairn and Camryn Manheim to believe this was going to be a good film. Unless some drastic changes occurred during the production, the handwriting surely had to have been on the wall (and obviously on paper for them to read).

Whatever the case, the talented cast simply can't do anything with the material that goes from lame and bad to ridiculous and laughable. Proof positive was the growing laughter from critics and regular viewers alike at the preponderance of preposterous material oozing from the effort, particularly at the end when everything is explained.

If there's ever been a more vapid and ridiculous revelation regarding the killer and their modus operandi, I don't want to know about it. Coupled with flat suspense direction and increasingly awful dialogue (which was bad from the start in its forced style of writing everything out for the viewer without nuance), the film unravels like an idiotic suspect's contrived alibi.

To make matters worse, at times the film takes on the feeling of one of those purposefully bad films within a film or simply a spoof of the old, tired and worn-out genre. The laughs are certainly there, although I don't exactly think they were expected or solicited.

The actual performances don't stink up the place as much as the writing and direction, but the cast simply doesn't have a fighting chance of succeeding. Judd ("High Crimes," "Kiss the Girls") once again plays the tough, woman in peril role that will soon become her main movie identification (if she isn't careful and/or already hasn't), Jackson ("S.W.A.T." "Basic") and Garcia ("Confidence," "Ocean's Eleven") seem to be sleepwalking through their parts, and the likes of Strathairn ("Harrison's Flowers," "Simon Birch") as a psychiatrist and Manheim ("Happiness," TV's "The Practice") playing a medical examiner are pretty much wasted.

As far as the title is concerned, I can only hope that it either refers to unexpected contortions in the script, or what was done to the cast and crew's arms behind their backs to get them to agree to appear in this mess. "Twisted" rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed February 24, 2004 / Posted February 27, 2004

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