'Taking Lives' copies formula

"Pulp Fiction" is widely hailed as the most influential film of the 1990s. Yet there's an argument to be made that honor should go to "Seven."

David Fincher's 1995 effort about two cops on the trail of a sadistic serial killer has spawned dozens of imitators. Usually the stories involve a smart-but-flawed law enforcement type on the trail of a mysterious murderer who exhibits a unique method and motive. These films revel in gruesome imagery and lurid deaths. Their plots eventually lead to a moment when the culprit is finally unveiled, revealing a friend, foe or loved one.

"Seven" is still the best of this bunch. (If you're assuming that "The Silence of the Lambs" is getting overlooked, that's because the movie is not a mystery. The villain is known from the outset.) And at least every few months there is a new entry into the genre pool. Some feature a novel twist. Some are purely derivative. Most star Ashley Judd.

The latest culprit is "Taking Lives," a slightly above average riff on the "serial killer mystery." It boasts an A-list cast, a talented young director and an unconventional setting. But when the house lights go up in the theater, a viewer will be hard pressed to distinguish this flick from its similar brethren.

In "Taking Lives," Angelina Jolie plays Illeana Scott, an FBI profiler called in by French-Canadian police in Montreal to help pin down the individual responsible for a string of murders. Apparently, he slaughters a victim of similar physical stature then lives as this person for a few years before discarding the identity for someone new.

The Surete officers compare his modus operandi to a hermit crab.

Movie

Taking Lives **

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"Taking Lives" is another in a long line of cop vs. serial killer whodunits. Here, Angelina Jolie portrays an FBI profiler recruited by Montreal police to help track a criminal who has been assuming the identities of his victims. While the slick, lurid piece leads to a bizarre finale, it's central mystery is obvious from the first frame.

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Fortunately, the police run across a noted artist (Ethan Hawke) who interrupts the butcher during one of his crimes. Although hoping to use this eyewitness to bait the killer, Agent Scott finds her own abilities compromised when she begins to romantically connect with him.

Veteran TV director D.J. Caruso ("The Shield") draws some good performances from his cast -- especially the underrated Hawke -- and shows himself adept at staging shocking scenarios that keep the story from getting bogged down.

His style is especially effective in the movie's superior intro which begins in the early '80s with the teenage criminal first embarking on his scheme. Shot in desaturated colors and employing an almost documentary-like feel, the macabre power of this opener is never matched by the rest of the picture.

What really compromises the impact of "Taking Lives" is that the "surprise" about the identity of the madman is a foregone conclusion. Sure, some red herrings are thrown in to plant elements of doubt. But when all is revealed these seem in retrospect like cheap parlor tricks.

Let it be said, however, that the film (which is based on the novel by Michael Pye) resolves itself in a manner that is just plain bizarre. If it wasn't so graphically misogynistic it might be easier to appreciate.

Although this finale doesn't quite carry the impact of finding Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box, at least it's not just another shootout between hero and serial killer.

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