Imagine, if you like, that Se7en‘s Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has come out of retirement. He’s been drawn back into the homicide department by the disappearance of his beloved niece. The investigation draws him out of the previous film’s nameless city to the relative serenity of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where he finds that his niece’s case fits into a pattern of abductions of beautiful young women. Three of them have been found dead — molested horribly and left in the woods to be eaten by animals — but Somerset guesses that the others are being held captive by a “collector” of some sort. Set on stopping this guy, who has taken the vile nom-de-crime of “Casanova,” Somerset puts his considerable compassion and wisdom to work at cracking the case. I guess you could call this fictional movie Eig8t.
But in a nutshell, that’s pretty close to what’s going on in Kiss the Girls. Instead of Somerset, we have Washington, D.C.-based forensic psychologist Alex Cross, the protagonist from a series of crime novels by bestselling author James Patterson. Since he’s also given flesh-and-blood presence by the formidable Freeman, the film already has echoes of Se7en, which can’t hurt since the latter film was a surprise smash hit. Even taken on its own, it’s hardly a bad idea for a movie. Patterson’s novel earned wide praise from fans of the genre, who praised the novel’s characterization and were impressed by the story’s twists and turns. The movie, I’m afraid, is another story.
Blame the screenplay by David Klass, who I suspect made some bad decisions in his effort to trim down the original story to feature length. The plot is far more complicated than you might imagine, involving a bi-coastal investigation and a few red herrings. Problem is, in the course of just two hours we don’t have enough time to process the information we’re given so that we can be surprised when the movie wants us to be surprised. As long as the screenplay is on plot, it’s short on characterization. Klass may have been better off jettisoning the West Coast element of the story — which needlessly complicates the second half of the film — and concentrating instead on beefing up his characters and giving us more insight on their emotions.
Fortunately, Klass and director Gary Fleder (the forgettable Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) are blessed with fine performances by Freeman and Ashley Judd, two actors who, I suspect, were more or less put on autopilot for this one. Freeman turns in an expert, off-hand performance that recalls the serene wisdom of Somerset. (Freeman’s a good enough actor that he really doesn’t need the early scene where he talks the gun out of a suicidal woman’s mouth just to demonstrate his character’s sensitivity and compassion.) Much as I enjoy that character, I’d like to see Freeman stretch out a little, and here’s hoping that I’ll get my wish in the next few months, when he stars in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and the not-a-disaster-movie-really Hard Rain.
Judd, cast as the kickboxing Kate McTiernan, is pretty ferocious, glomming on tight to her character’s resolute refusal to be a passive victim, or to let Casanova strike again. She’s an interning med student who’s kidnapped from her home by Casanova. It’s through her eyes that we’re introduced to the underground dungeon where he keeps his young victims captive (he arranges them in a circle and paws them up and down as Cross’s niece plays her violin). But this one escapes, tearing off through the woods (in a scene right out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and leaping into a river. Her memories of what she saw will be key to catching Casanova.
As a thriller, Kiss the Girls is by the numbers. We’ve got the fish-out-of-water-with-a-badge, a cop who’s gone outside his jurisdiction because he has a personal stake in the investigation. We’ve got the killer’s hidden lair, which the cops must discover in a race against time to save his next victim. And while the scenes (two of them!) where Kate kicks righteous ass without the help of a male rescuer are tremendous crowd-pleasers, they’re staged without much ingenuity. Judd plays Kate strong and smart, but I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the smart. The so-so cinematography and catch-as-catch-can editing technique are augmented by a distracting sound mix that, if you see the movie in digital sound, has those already cliched wooshing noises careering through the movie theater in an attempt to whip up a sense of unease.
We’ve also got the obligatory yucky relationship between Casanova and his pretty female victims. Their trauma is only hinted at — I think a better (and probably darker) movie might have given us a longer look inside that makeshift prison block, and would have forced us to care about the fate of those women. (I’m told that the novel included a subplot allowing Kate a relationship with one of Casanova’s other victims that’s missing here.) Instead, the movie barely acknowledges their pain, and seems only fleetingly concerned with fleshing out the character of Casanova (the most unsettling insight coes from a scene where we find out that he’s an Internet geek, swapping photos of his victims by email). I wanted to loathe him, but found myself not moved much by anything he did. Perhaps ironically, the unconvincing treatment of the villain and his deeds makes the movie’s queasiest touches — a post-mortem photo of one of the victims, badly battered, or the attempted rape scene in the final reel — seem uncomfortably gratuitous, or even titillating. For a picture that deals with a sexual psychopath who I suspect makes Hannibal Lecter look like a gentleman, Kiss the Girls plays as pretty light entertainment.