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(2003) (Cate Blanchett, Tommy Lee Jones) (R)

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Drama/Suspense: A frontier woman reluctantly enlists the aid of her estranged father in hopes of rescuing her daughter who's been kidnapped by renegade Apaches intent on taking the teen to Mexico for sale.
It's 1885 and Maggie Gilkeson (CATE BLANCHETT) is trying to raise her two daughters, Lilly (EVAN RACHEL WOOD) and Dot (JENNA BOYD), on her New Mexico farm where her hired help, Brake Baldwin (AARON ECKHART) and another man, work.

Out of the blue, her long-estranged father, Jones (TOMMY LEE JONES), shows up one day hoping for reconciliation. Maggie wants no part of that, however, as she's never forgiven him for abandoning her when she was just a child. Thus, she sends him on his way and hopes the matter is behind her.

When several men are murdered and Lilly is kidnapped, however, Maggie is forced to ask Jones, who sees himself as an Indian, to help find her. With the army forces, led by Lt. Jim Ducharme (VAL KILMER), appearing incompetent and headed in the wrong direction, Jones agrees to lead Maggie and Dot in the rescue attempt.

Their task is daunting, however, since the renegade kidnappers are larger in number and are led by Pesh-Chidin (ERIC SCHWEIG), a former Apache scout for the army who's turned bad and supposedly wields supernatural powers. Eventually enlisting the aid of Indian acquaintance Kayitah (JAY TAVARE) and his adult son, Honesco (SIMON BAKER), Jones and Maggie hope to find and rescue Lilly before Pesh-Chidin and his men get to Mexico where they plan on selling Lilly and other kidnapped girls.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While movie titles are usually created to convey the gist or theme of the story and/or get people intrigued enough see the film, they have another side effect. And that's providing movie reviewers with summary headlines ("Very Bad Things" being proof positive of that) as well as general fodder for their critiques.

Such is the case with "The Missing," director Ron Howard's "western" that combines elements from that genre as well as those found in action flicks, familial dramas and even a bit of the old supernatural thriller. It's surprising that the latter is what's being hyped in the film's promotional materials since that only comprises a small portion of what the film offers.

Methinks some marketing honcho or studio head saw the finished product and realized they needed some sort of hook or angle to entice viewers and thus the resultant commercials. All of which brings us around to my original point.

Despite talented souls in front of and behind the camera, terrific on-location sets and vistas and a decent if slightly original story, the overall effort simply feels as if it's missing something. That's not meant to imply that it's bad, mind you. Instead, it simply lacks enough drama, action, suspense and/or, while we're at it, supernatural elements to stand out from the crowd.

Working from screenwriter Ken Kaufman's ("Space Cowboys," "Muppets From Space") adaptation of Thomas Eidson's source novel, Howard ("A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13") has concocted a moderately intriguing premise. A no-nonsense frontierswoman reluctantly asks her long-estranged father for help in rescuing her daughter who's been kidnapped by former Apache army scouts who've gone bad and want to sell her and other girls to the Mexicans.

I have no idea about the historical accuracy of the plot. Yet, there's obviously enough there (and then some) to get the ball rolling on a track and rescue sort of story. Despite setting up that premise fairly early, however, the filmmakers unfortunately take their sweet old time in getting to the conclusion. For reasons unknown - aside from Oscar voters often tending to confuse length with quality - the film runs a near butt-numbing 130 some minutes.

Sure, there are some suspenseful moments thrown in for good measure - although a near drowning scene isn't as harrowing as that in "The River" or "The Abyss" - but most of the "downtime" is spent watching and listening to Cate Blanchett's character holding a grudge against her long-absent father figure played by Tommy Lee Jones.

Both are fine performers and Blanchett ("Veronica Guerin," "The Shipping News"), as usual, delivers a solidly executed and mostly believable performance. That said, while it's obviously expected, I tired rather quickly of the strained family issue that, like the rest of the film, is missing that something extra to make the material as dynamic as it might have been.

Speaking of tiring of material, when are we going to see the last of Jones ("The Hunted," "The Fugitive") playing a character who hunts down and finds others? Sure, he's got the routine down pat and is the go-to guy for playing such roles, but enough already of casting him in such parts (at least he doesn't go into the "every farm house, out house" shtick). My bigger problem, though, is that I simply didn't buy him in this particular role. Beyond feeling too contemporary for a period piece, the overall Indian wannabe element just didn't work for me.

Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen," "Simone") and Jenna Boyd ("Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star," "The Hunted"), on the other hand, are fine playing his character's two granddaughters. Eric Schweig ("Skins," "The Last of the Mohicans"") is appropriately menacing and scary-looking as the head villain, and Jay Tavare ("Adaptation," "Executive Decision") and Simon Baker ("Shanghai Noon," "Smoke Signals") make a fine father-son Indian duo. Val Kilmer ("Wonderland," "The Salton Sea") and Aaron Eckhart ("The Core," "Possession"), however, aren't around long enough to make much of a difference.

Beyond those problems and one striking bit of coincidence that makes the vastness of the Old West look like a small town street corner where you routinely run into friends, the picture is competently filmed and told. I just wish there were something more to it - emotional, intellectual, visceral - that would have made it more intriguing, engaging or moving to me. Generally okay but obviously living up to its descriptive title, "The Missing" ultimately comes up short and thus rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 14, 2003 / Posted November 26, 2003

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