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Withheld information dampens uneven 'Taking Lives'

| Friday, March 19, 2004

If you just naturally love great, suspenseful murder mysteries and miss them something awful, you elbow everyone else out of the way to get to each new wanna-be only to be let down by another "Twisted," "Runaway Jury," "Secret Window" or "In the Cut."

How often do we get another "Silence of the Lambs," wherein the vulnerable Clarice Starling walks us to the edge, or maybe a "Seven" -- films that scared and surprised us fairly•

You want to participate in the deductive process, joust with the filmmakers' ingenuity and apply the sleuthing skills acquired from Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

You don't want to catch the director withholding information in a way that shouts what he doesn't want you to know.

The tantalizing but too uneven "Taking Lives" has a shrewd core and way too much hokum.

In a 1983 prologue, the teenager Martin (Paul Dano) slays an amiable new companion and steals his identity. He's a hermit crab, taking over a victim's shell.

Martin, under whatever name, inhabits Montreal or Quebec, which portray themselves instead of U.S. cities for a change.

For reasons never mentioned, Surete director Hugo Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) calls in FBI Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) to work on a serial-killings case that could date back to '83.

We're to read her as another Starling because of her extraordinary perception. Illeana can lie in a victim's excavated grave site and tell you about the killer's habits, but she can't tell when he's under the bed or whether there's peanut butter on her ample upper lip.

Martin's alive. We know that. His mom, Mrs. Asher (Gena Rowlands), spots him 19 years after he, at age 16, had robbed her and bolted off permanently.

Artist James Costa (Ethan Hawke), a semi-suspect, sketches the fellow he saw leaving a crime scene. It's that bloke Hart, whom the movie audience recognizes as supporting player Kiefer Sutherland.

Veteran audience sleuths will be vigilant of purposeful misdirection, wherein something is concealed while we're supposed to be distracted.

Is it relevant that Martin's twin brother died at 14• That's a fair puzzle part.

But not the whopping inconsistencies in Illeana's perceptions and the unacceptable gaps in her professionalism. Starling was a thoroughly organic character; Illeana is one thing or another depending on the convenience of the scene. She's immobilized one moment, unflappable the next.

You can't help giving "Taking Lives" credit for sustaining momentum to the finish. Nor minding the absurdity of the outcome. Additional Information:

Details

'Taking Lives'

Director : D.J. Caruso

Stars : Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, Kiefer Sutherland

MPAA rating : R for strong violence including disturbing images, language and some sexuality

Two and a half stars

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