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Leave-him-to-television director D.J. Caruso’s second feature (after The
Salton Sea
) — about the tracking of a serial killer whose M.O. involves
literally defacing his victims, assuming their identities and scaring the bejeezus
out of Ethan Hawke — contains one good scene at the very beginning and, later
on, a decent scare. (There’s also one of filmdom’s great howlers, intentional
or otherwise, inked onto a cocktail napkin.) The rest of Taking Lives
is an editorial salvage job, a hopeful if incoherent stringing together of scary-movie
clichés both modern (a sickening accretion of forensics horrors, some very sloppy
housekeeping) and antiquated (bookshelves that open onto secret passages, an
evil twin). Angelina Jolie, as a footnote to Clarice Starling, holds her head
very still for an hour or so, flashing her eyes to let us know how observant
a CSI she is, then shows a whole lot of passion — or whatever that was in the
final act — in the hope that someone may call it acting. (Back when she was
pickier about her roles, it really was.) Meanwhile, thanks to the miracle of
Canadian outsourcing, there’s plenty of barely comprehensible French-accented
dialogue and a pointless chase through the Montreal Jazz Festival. Plus: a genuinely
nasty intrusion by Kiefer Sutherland as . . . what’s his name? McGuffin! Actually,
the only thing vaguely Hitchcockian about these proceedings is Philip Glass’
stab at Herrmann-esque.

Still, there’s that one good scene — the same scene that (introduced by Jolie
Angelina herself) has been airing at Yahoo! Movies all week, a scene so vastly
superior in quality and tone to the rest of Taking Lives that it (sotto
voce) may as well have been made by someone else. And say, for the sake
of argument, that this 8-minute clip was made by someone else (though,
of course, you know and we know that it absolutely, positively wasn’t).
Would you trust Warner Bros. to own up? And if they didn’t bait and switch this
time (and listen carefully now: I’ll beat the crap out of anyone who says they
did), and this first volley of intact little teasers proves to be an effective
marketing technique for otherwise ineffective “product” . . . Well, I mean,
can you seriously imagine that it will take very long for Warner Bros. (or rather,
some vastly less ethical studio) to try it out “just once” and thus establish
a lucrative precedent?

Just asking.

Meanwhile, for the rather more entertaining Universal release Dawn of the
Dead
— the snazzy pre-credit sequence of which had its promotional airing
Monday night on the USA network — the problem is not so much sustaining a tone
as it is deciding upon one. In George R. Romero’s logistics-heavy genre classic
(like its remake, about a handful of survivors waiting out a zombie apocalypse
amid the consumer comforts of an abandoned shopping mall), the living dead were
slow, off-balance and distractible. Half the excitement was waiting to see who’d
get careless enough to get caught. Then came the apparently indissoluble marriage
of speed metal and faster-moving zombies, from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the
Living Dead
right on up through the post-Aronofsky scritch-scratch of 28
Days Later
, and brother, you’d better run like hell and leave the tactical
thinking to untrustworthy men in combat fatigues. The new Dawn of, from
car-commercial director Zack Snyder and screenwriter (and Troma alumnus) James
Gunn, mixes up these modes, skimps on exposition, stirs in a few too many survivors,
and thereby invites confusion. Boredom even. Still, the principal cast (Sarah
Polley, Ving Rhames, ER’s Mekhi Phifer and Wendigo’s Jake Weber)
is better than it has any right to be, the flesh-eating ghouls are more fun
than a barrel of Marilyn Manson, and there are lots of giddily gruesome details
— including some first-rate chain-saw action — along the way. And besides, of
all the people who noted that Romero’s original was boring, how many were actually
complaining?

—Ron Stringer

 

The feature-length versions of Dawn of the Dead and Taking Lives
open citywide on Friday.