Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Written by: Michael Pye (novel)
Jon Bokenkamp (screenplay)
Produced by: Bruce Berman
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke, and Kiefer Sutherland

I’m a huge advocate of the “Unrated” DVD. Sure, sometimes it is just a marketing tool. In order to be “unrated,” you simply have to release a version that was never reviewed by the ratings board of the MPAA. If you add a scene of two people walking down the street, and you don’t submit that cut to the board, you can release it as “unrated.” In the case of horror, “unrated” has come to mean that the graphic ideas and images the old men and soccer moms of the panel found offensive can finally be seen by the fans for which they were intended. Cases in point: Re-Animator, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Suspiria…the list goes on and on. (And we fans are still waiting on Paramount to hear our cries, and the protests of the filmmakers themselves, and finally free the “unrated” versions of the Friday the 13th series from the vaults!) So when I saw the huge “Unrated” stamp on the DVD case for Taking Lives, I had to show my support and give it a spin.

My problems with the film began as it faded in from black. In the background, we hear a U2 song from 1989. We are then shown a title card that proclaims it to be 1983.

After a legitimately shocking prologue, we cut to an opening credit sequence that was clearly cloned from the movie Seven: scratched and warn microfiche of killings are shown with the cast and crews names typed in, and we see the killer’s hands as he dyes his hair, puts in contacts, and adjusts his false teeth.

The film is the story of a psychopath who kills people and steals their identities. He does it because their lives have something his current pitiful existence lacks. How appropriate that this film should do the same—taking on aspects of other movies that achieved a level of suspense, shock, twists, and eroticism the film desperately wants, but can not generate on its own. As I watched the plot unfold, I could not help but think of Seven, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, even Wild Things. And I found myself remembering just how good those films were, and just how lame this one was by comparison.

Academy Award-winner Angelina Jolie is a crack FBI profiler, Special Agent Illeana Scott. She has unconventional approaches to getting inside the head of a killer. She will lay in the grave where a victim was found and will surround herself with images of the defiled corpses—even going so far as to tape them to the ceiling above her hotel bed. She has been labeled a witch by other agents for her ability to hone in on suspects and provide vital information that leads to their capture.

Montreal detectives have a morgue filled with men who have had their hands removed and their skulls crushed. They have no leads and must call on Agent Scott’s expertise. She doesn’t disappoint, quickly theorizing that their killer is a chameleon who is “taking lives” in more ways than one.

The big “reveal” of the killer’s identity is clearly meant to be a surprise, and that’s the film’s main flaw. Who the killer is is obvious from the very beginning. Sure, they throw several red herrings our way to try and convince us otherwise, but it doesn’t work. In the TV series Columbo, we always knew who the killer was in the beginning. The joy of the show was seeing the detective figure it out and finally find a way to nail them. If this film had taken that approach, it might have been much more engaging. Instead, it spends all its energy trying to steer you away from the only suspect that makes any sense.

Taking Lives‘ one original and truly disturbing moment comes in the big sex scene between Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke—the only reason I can see for the “Unrated” brand. The two begin to seriously grind against a wall, and then on a table, before finally moving to the bed. Once there, they make love while staring up at those photos of the killer’s many dead and mangled victims. It’s a four star scene.

Too bad it’s stuck in the middle of a two star film.

2 out of 5 stars