Free Angelina! That's all I could think as I watched Angelina Jolie square her jaw against yet another stinker, this one the unsavory thriller "Taking Lives." One of the most eminently watchable actresses in movies with either the worst taste in town or a penchant for bad advice, Jolie has endured a depressingly shabby career run since her breakout performance in "Girl, Interrupted." Not since Ashley Judd followed "Ruby in Paradise" with a series of women-in-jeopardy flicks has so much radiant promise been as extravagantly squandered.
More than likely Hollywood doesn't know what to do with Jolie. With her mad, staring eyes and habit of sharing the more outre details of her life with anyone holding a microphone, the actress tends to come across as rather more untamed than the average star. In "Taking Lives," director D.J. Caruso (whose last film was "The Salton Sea") runs with that wildness, pushing the high priestess of Goth angle familiar from Jolie's performances and publicity to the edge of burlesque. This time around the actress plays Special Agent Illeana Scott, an FBI profiler with an unassailable record and a taste for the macabre. When she canvasses a grave for clues Scott doesn't just get dirty; she lies in the pit and caresses the walls like a lover.
Written by Jon Bokenkamp from the book by Michael Pye, "Taking Lives" hits most of the usual crime-thriller beats, tweaking a few to fit the gender of its central character. Scott, a Quantico graduate who hails from Pennsylvania, travels to Montreal to investigate the grisly handiwork of what looks to be a serial killer. Feebly aided by a gruffly supportive older supervisor (Tcheky Karyo) and a brusquely resentful younger investigator (Olivier Martinez), Scott delves deep into the evidence as a way to get inside the killer's mind. In the course of the inquiry, she interviews a woman who may be the murderer's mother (Gena Rowlands), becomes entangled with a jittery witness (Ethan Hawke) and chases after a potential suspect (Kiefer Sutherland).
It's slick nonsense at best and for the first hour it's watchable. There's cheap entertainment to be had from a thriller in which two detectives are played by beauties as ravishing as Jolie and Martinez. Of course, no one in the cast comes off particularly well (Hawke fares the best), but what counts in a movie like "Taking Lives" isn't the expressive reach of the performances. It's how good everyone looks as they race through the streets, guns at the ready. As the denatured color palette, a shadowy diner and even the film's poster make all too obvious, what also counts is that the film stir up memories of David Fincher's "Seven," no matter how impoverished the comparison.
About that poster: the advertising campaign for "Taking Lives" features an image of Jolie in the embrace of an unseen man. You can't see the actress' eyes; instead, the focus is on her mouth, those famously swollen lips opened to form an "O." The movies have always been in the service of Eros and Thanatos, but I didn't realize what bothered me about those suggestively expectant lips until I saw the movie. The story may turn on a serial killer hunting other men, but the film hinges on the repeated vision of Jolie brutally getting hers across the face, the neck and the belly, often with lips and limbs parted. No matter how big their guns and how tough their talk, women stars still need to put out if they want to cash in.
MPAA rating: R, for strong violence including disturbing images, language and some sexuality
Times guidelines: Sexualized violence, decomposed bodies, adult language
Angelina Jolie...Illeana Scott
Ethan Hawke...James Costa
Kiefer Sutherland...the fugitive
Olivier Martinez...Joseph Paquette
Tcheky Karyo...Hugo Leclair
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures a Mark Canton production, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director D.J. Caruso. Writer Jon Bokenkamp. Based on the novel by Michael Pye. Producers Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman. Director of photography Amir Mokri. Production designer Tom Southwell. Editor Anne V. Coates. Music Philip Glass. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
In general release.