A Thriller With Too Much Filler

Like an action epic that doesn’t move, or a musical that doesn’t sing, there is something woefully disappointing at the movies about a thriller that doesn’t thrill. A twisted little spine-tingler called Taking Lives almost achieves the dark and terrifying ambiance of Seven and Copycat to which it aspires, except for one basic hurdle. A particularly savage serial killer is on the loose in Montreal, and the entire Canadian police force is so baffled that to solve the case, they turn to America for help from the F.B.I.’s most brilliant and powerful profiler … Angelina Jolie ?? This is a casting decision funny enough to render the rest of the movie, as ze Québécois would say, incroyable!

In 1983, a gaunt, stringy-haired drifter fakes his own death by murdering a fellow passenger he meets on a bus and stealing his identity. This senseless act of violence triggers a string of grim, ritualistic mutilation killings throughout the world, all unsolved. Now, after 20 years, the maniac is spotted on a Montreal ferry by his mother and more new bodies pile up, causing no end of annoyance to the cops, who haven’t got a clue. In the old days, this was a job for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but they must have gone the way of the nickel phone call, because there isn’t a horse in sight. It’s now a job for Angelina Jolie, a tough, two-fisted, tricep-bulging American agent from the Nautilus Academy of Dramatic Art who specializes in butch assignments for which Ashley Judd is unavailable. To the chagrin of her Canadian counterpart (Olivier Martinez), who resents interfering foreigners the way New Yorkers raise eyebrows over the overwhelming number of women answering office telephones these days with Mary Poppins accents, Ms. Jolie theorizes that the chameleon killer is hijacking the lives of his victims and assuming their personalities-something the rest of us knew from the opening flashback. But never mind. Suddenly the killer is thwarted in his latest bloodbath by a key witness-a shy art dealer who bravely tries to save a new victim’s life, endangering his own. Ethan Hawke gives a quirky, fascinating performance as this Good Samaritan, who is so weird that he becomes instantly suspicious to everyone but the intuitive homicide detective, Ms. Jolie, who breaks all of her own rules by falling for the witness-a disastrous mistake that costs her her job and almost her life. Meanwhile, director D.J. Caruso, who has watched too many reruns of The Silence of the Lambs , piles on the lurid details, and screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp litters the trajectory with more red herrings than the traffic can bear in less than two hours.

The source material for Taking Lives is a book by mystery writer Michael Pye in which the detective wasn’t even a woman. So much for integrity. Still, for crash-and-bash fans, there are grisly elements galore: severed fingers, a dead body falling out of ceiling, a disinterred corpse, a hidden room behind a bookcase, a case of twins with the wrong twin in the cemetery, and the revelation of the killer at last. Of course, it’s the wrong killer. And I don’t think I can soon forget the unwanted electroshock therapy I got from watching a knife plunged through the stomach of a pregnant woman.

Don’t get me wrong. While not for the squeamish, parts of Taking Lives are well constructed and suspenseful, and the fact that it is never boring is the ultimate compliment it deserves. But the actors are wasted, especially Kiefer Sutherland as a plot insertion designed solely to mislead us into detours we have no intention of taking. As the muscular detective, Angelina Jolie inspires more controversy than satisfaction. While she sifted through the subterranean detritus of crime searching for clues, I hardly noticed. I was too busy watching her flesh-a lot of which is exposed here-searching for the words “Billy Bob,” wondering how many gallons of body paint were factored into the budget just to cover up her famous tattoos. Even more distracting is the cruel and wasteful use of the great Gena Rowlands. In Europe, an icon like Jeanne Moreau is still regarded as a ripe symbol of maturity, of ageless female sexual allure. In America, an icon like Gena Rowlands gets a bullet through her skull in an elevator. While everyone around her burns calories trying to look industrious, she makes them look like amateurs with one curl of her lip. I’d like to see a thriller like Taking Lives with her as the lady detective. With Angelina Jolie, youth may be hired, but it’s not being served.

Depp-rivation

In 1988, David Koepp established squatter’s rights in my database by co-writing one of my favorite films-the original, offbeat, gripping and totally hypnotic suspense chiller Apartment Zero . As both a writer and director, he’s had some box-office successes since then as well as some clinkers, but nothing as inventive. With the deadly Secret Window , there is no trace of the creepy unconventionality I hoped would become his trademark.

This stagnant bore, another in an endless stream of adaptations from Stephen King potboilers, is garnished with slick performances by Johnny Depp, Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, Charles S. Dutton and others, but it’s dead on arrival. In another of those self-mocking sendups of the acting craft that Mr. Depp is perfecting to the point of caricature, he plays Mort Rainey, a writer of crime stories with a torturous writer’s block that is slowly turning lethal. Too slowly, if you ask me. He sleeps. He putters around a lakefront cabin in a ratty bathrobe with the kind of hair that can only be achieved by sticking a wet toe into a hot socket. His computer is as blank as his expression. He talks to himself in mirrors and to the mangy dog who is his sole companion since his wife (Maria Bello) ditched him for another guy and confiscated his house in town, which she shares with her new lover (Timothy Hutton). Mort is, needless to say, on the verge of going homicidal. It’s a character-and a theme-Stephen King has explored before. The writer paying for his sins-who is always Stephen King himself-showed up in Misery , of course, where, impersonated by James Caan, he was held prisoner by a sadistic fan, and in The Dark Half , where Mr. King envisioned himself half-serious-writer and half-serial-killer in the guise of Timothy Hutton (who now guests in a smaller role). What a daunting idea. Most writers have problems just holding onto one mind, but Mr. King always has two. In Secret Window , neither of them works, and both of them are flatlining.

Is it my imagination, or is Stephen King a one-man writing industry that publishes four books a year the size of the Sears catalog? This one, based on a novella in the book Four Past Midnight , is the story of a desperate writer who can’t think of anything new. Suddenly a wacko Mississippi cracker named John Shooter knocks on his door, played by John Turturro with an accent so phony that it makes Ellie Mae Clampett sound like Dame Sybil Thorndyke. This spook claims that Mort stole one of his stories and published it under his own name in 1997. Mort calls the intruder a liar: His story was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine three years earlier, in 1994, and he can produce the magazine to prove it. But this means he has to drive into town and confront his estranged wife, who has been begging him to sign the divorce papers to no avail. Is it any shock that the magazine arrives from his agent, but the pages with the original story are missing? Meanwhile, he reports the strange, threatening intruder to the retarded sheriff (Len Cariou), who spends his time needlepointing. He also hires a bodyguard (Charles S. Dutton). Did I forget to mention the story in question was about a man betrayed by his wife who kills her and buries her in the garden? If you don’t figure out what’s coming, you deserve to be relieved of the inflated price of admission and turned into a fool for make-believe.

When the dog, the bodyguard and the only neighbor who witnessed the Mississippi marauder all end up in a pile of blood with screwdrivers in their skulls, things look dark. But then the wife’s house burns down. Mr. Turturro disappears from the screenplay, Mort is now wearing the black hat and smoking the Pall Malls left behind by the cornpone Caligula, and talking to-a second Mort! By now, any sane audience should be shouting to the wife, “Don’t go near the garden!” Except for one thing. At the theater where I caught a screening of Secret Window on a busy Saturday night, there was no audience at all !

Johnny Depp is terrible. Maybe it’s not his fault. The script is unplayable and he seems to be directing himself. But it doesn’t help that he looks like an escaped inmate from a mental ward who has been living far too long on Thorazine and porridge. “The only thing that matters is the ending,” he says, rolling his eyes like somebody in Henry Aldrich Haunts a House . “It’s the most important part of the story.” This lox of a movie has no story, no ending and no redeeming value. Color it gone.

Lives Intertwined

Intermission , the vigorous debut feature by British stage director John Crowley, is a rambling collage of intertwined lives in modern Dublin. Fifty-four characters emerge and overlap in 11 different stories in a punchy, gregarious drama that connects seemingly unrelated people in a much more sobering and realistic way than last year’s silly romantic farce, Love Actually . Returning to his Irish roots with shaved head and none of the restrictions imposed by Hollywood stardom, Colin Farrell plays a sociopathic, small-time crook trying to bag one last haul that will enable him to retire from the underworld and live the good life with his girlfriend (heartthrob Kelly Macdonald of Gosford Park ). Before making a long-term commitment that might be the equivalent of a sentence in the slammer, they decide to take an “intermission” from their relationship. They try to prove that they are independent and unaffected by the separation, but the consequences are dour. She courts misery to show that he has left her unscathed, while he continues to dream about the big score that is always just beyond his reach and the perfect girl who is always just within his grasp-until she turns out to be an impostor. Their hiatus has repercussions for many people besides themselves, and sets off a chain of events that Mr. Crowley chronicles with deliberate invasion of privacy.

Among the many splendid cast members who contribute heartily: Cillian Murphy, as a man torn between his dull but honest job at the supermarket and a tempting role as Mr. Farrell’s sidekick, a job that could send him to jail for the rest of his adult life; Shirley Henderson, as Ms. Macdonald’s forlorn sister; and Colm Meaney, as a burly cop who infiltrates the gritty landscape like Mr. Crowley’s handheld cameras. The stories collide and reflect off each other like prisms of light on the blade of a razor, while the characters remain ignorant of the currents that flow through their lives. One of the film’s great joys is the cumulative energy of the fine ensemble cast. The performances are well-rounded, and the free-form script by Mark O’Rowe gives them plenty of room to flex. Without the burden of carrying an entire movie, Colin Farrell is the most startlingly relaxed he has ever been on-camera. (Alas, his Irish brogue is a bit too startling, lapsing as it sometimes does into leprechaun jabberwocky.) The supportive direction by Mr. Crowley, a fixture at London’s Donmar Warehouse, segues from stage to screen with surprising visual fluidity. A gritty tapestry embroidered with the light and dark chiaroscuro of wit and sorrow, Intermission is a jagged hymn to transience and the self-discovery it offers. I don’t think it has a prayer in the trashy oppressiveness of modern commercial cinema, but it’s a fresh diversion from the ordinary.