Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Taking Lives

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

TAKING LIVES

3/10

USA 2004 : D.J. CARUSO : 103 mins

‘Taking Liberties’, more like, so clunkily and daft is this high-concept serial-killer misfire. The (not-unintriguing) gimmick this time has the murderer adopting the identity of each new victim in turn, moving from life to life, we’re told, “like a hermit-crab.” So, when top FBI agent Illeanna Scott (Angelina Jolie) arrives in Montreal to investigate a grisly slaying, she’s faced with no end of potential suspects who may not be who they seem: nervy gallery-owner Costa (Ethan Hawke), who claims to have witnessed the crime; shadowy Hart (Kiefer Sutherland), who matches Costa’s description of the culprit to a T; even macho local cop Paquette (Olivier Martinez) isn’t above suspicion, fuming as he is with resentment at Illeanna’s arrival.

Taking Lives is a bad picture, but takes itself far too seriously to fall into the ‘guilty-pleasure’ category of pictures like The Butterfly Effect, which make a virtue of their implausibility and ludicrousness. Jolie and Hawke come across as if they seriously think this pulpy nonsense is going to land them further trips to the Oscars – and even they fare better than the likes of Sutherland and Gena Rowlands (as the killer’s distraught but steely mother) whose screen-time is rather insultingly limited to cameo brevity.

Although Caruso predictably has little idea what to do with Rowlands, (apart from shoot her from off-putting overhead angles), she does emerge as one of the film’s very few plusses. Another is the use of Montreal locations: as in Hitchcock’s I Confess and the more recent The Score, this photogenic city appears as itself, rather than, as in many Hollywood productions, standing in for a more expensive-to-use American metropolis.

But Caruso proceeds to torpedo Montreal’s positive impact on the movie by filling several key roles with French actors (Martinez, Tcheky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade) rather than Quebecois (whose ‘joual‘ accent is assez different). And while subtitles are used on occasion, there are several one-on-one exchanges between the Quebecois flics which are inexplicably conducted in heavily-accented English. And there’s an especially lame ‘gag’ in which Paquette bad-mouths Illeanna in his native tongue, only to be unconvincingly startled when she suddenly reveals that “elle parle Francais.

It isn’t hard to see why Taking Lives was made, of course: based on a novel by Michael Pye, it provides an old-fashioned kind of star vehicle for Jolie as the hyper-intuitive (and exceedingly glamorous) Ms Scott, who’s like a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Clarice Starling and Linda Evangelista. And Jolie has of course had previous successes in this sub-Se7en vein with the likes of Philip Noyce’s The Bone Collector.

But Caruso doesn’t even reach the kind of by-the-numbers competence of a Noyce, tricking up the picture with all sorts of gratuitously arty camera angles and amping up Amir Mokri’s atmospheric cinematography to a distracting degree: there haven’t been such relentlessly dark interiors since the heyday of The X-Files. Even the presence of such august behind-the-camera figures as editor Anne V Coates and composer Philip Glass (who turns in a relatively uninspired Hitchockian score) isn’t enough to compensate for the shortcomings of Caruso and scriptwriter Jon Bokenkamp – indeed, having such names on board raises expectations which the film never comes close to matching.

And despite Caruso’s shortcomings it’s Bokenkamp who’s emphatically the real miscreant in Taking Lives. His screenplay is at once thuddingly implausible and grindingly predictable: most viewers will be able to weed out the red herrings and identify the killer (thus negating suspense) several reels before the supposedly brilliant Illeana cracks the case. Even then we still have an unfortunate distance left to limp, through a tedious series of climaxes until a laughable final showdown that makes no sense in retrospect and even at the time rings as hollow as so much else that’s gone before. By this stage Caruso and Bokenkamp have gone beyond even ‘Taking Liberties’… Taking the Piss, perhaps?

23rd April, 2004
(seen 22nd April : UCI, MetroCentre, Gateshead : press show)

by Neil Young