Sunday 5 July 2015

Movie Review: Taking Lives (2004)

A serial murderer chase thriller that is more curious than effective, Taking Lives has a few interesting ideas but then stumbles into some large and fateful plot holes and execution deficiencies.

Set in Canada, the film opens in the early 1980s when teenager Martin Asher (Paul Dano) kills another young drifter called Matt and takes over his identity. Martin is assumed to be dead. Twenty years later, FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) is summoned to Montreal to help the local police force crack a series of unsolved gruesome murders. At the same time Martin's mother Rebecca Asher (Gena Rowlands) steps forward to inform the police that she has spotted her supposedly dead son on a crowded ferry.

Illeana explores Martin's past and eventually identifies him as a serial killer who takes over the lives of his victims because he cannot face who he is. Martin's current identity is not known, but there is a break in the case when the latest murder is witnessed by art dealer James Costa (Ethan Hawke). Illeana and her team work with James to draw a portrait of Martin, now intent on killing James to eliminate the witness. But just when it seems that the police are gaining the upper hand and Illeana start a torrid affair with James, the case takes a strange and even bloodier twist.

Directed by D.J. Caruso, Taking Lives never establishes a consistent tone. An FBI agent in Canada with landmark scenes of Quebec City being misrepresented as Montreal are not good foundations for a thriller. The film is littered with some fundamental unexplained events, including a decomposed body in the attic and a random assailant below the bed that serve as cheap thrills but demand a lot more exposition that never arrives. The narrative is often pushed forward in a rapid rattle of dialogue and jumbled names as Illeana jumps into the car to get to the next scene, leaving behind a bewildered mess. There are two major twists in the film, and both are fairly easy to spot.

Taking Lives does do a few things well. The tension between Illeana and the local detectives (portrayed by Olivier Martinez, Tchéky Karyo and Jean-Hugues Anglade) is healthy. The group works together despite the men never fully welcoming Illeana's intrusion onto their turf. The serial killer's background is viable in cinematic terms, with Illeana uncovering the household secrets that triggered Martin's self-hate and murderous tendencies. And there is a well-mounted highway car chase scene that finds a good balance between carnage and technical thrills.

In the lead roles Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke are serviceable without convincingly committing to their characters, and they do enjoy a scorching sex scene. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland receives an inordinately prominent billing, but is hardly in the film. Taking Lives has its moments, but ultimately does not offer nearly enough to stand apart from the myriad other, better serial killer films.

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