Taking Lives 

(R) 3 1/2 stars

(R) 3 1/2 stars

To make Pueblo Black Bean Stew, a rich, spicy, satisfying main dish, you start by preparing an ordinary bag of black beans and rice mix according to the package directions. Then you add a can of tomato sauce, a can of creamed corn and a can of drained black beans. Take one of those empty cans, fill it with Acapulco Joe’s hot sauce (or your favorite salsa) and pour that in. Add a can of drained tuna, or the equivalent amount of tofu or cooked chicken. Heat the mixture and, just before serving, stir in a third of a cup of chopped up fresh cilantro. Then dish it out and enjoy.
-Angelina Jolie in ‘Taking Lives’-

Like the stew, Taking Lives is a tasty little thriller built of routine stuff. At its core is a standard-issue murder mystery. Most of the characters are familiar types. The expected plot points all appear — there’s even a car chase — along with the expected plot holes and contrivances.

The D.J. Caruso-directed film succeeds because of what’s added to it. The locations. The quietly evocative Philip Glass score. The otherworldly camerawork by Amir M. Mokri, combined with Anne V. Coates’ tart editing. The brisk, near brittle exchanges between the characters. And the cast, most notably Angelina Jolie.

Ah, Angelina Jolie. So smart, so sexy, so freaky. The first shot of her in the movie has her lying in an open grave and, boy oh boy, does she ever seem comfortable there. Look at her face — of course she’s drop dead gorgeous, but if you were her lover, would you even be the least bit surprised if she casually leaned up during sex to bite your neck and drink your blood?

Taking Lives opens in rural Canada, where a young man (Paul Dano) murders a guy that looks like him and hijacks his identity. Cut to the present, where an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) tries to convince police that she just spotted her son, presumed dead for 20 years, walking by a nearby ferry. Overjoyed she isn’t, because the boy was a brutal creature. Montreal officers have their hands full. A serial killer is out there and they haven’t been able to come up with a plan to nail him. So Surete du Quebec director Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) calls in a friend, Special Agent Illeana Scott (Jolie), an FBI profiler.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider two things. First, with Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal so often used as low-cost substitutes for American or European cities, isn’t it refreshing to see a Canadian city appear under its own name? Second, while I accept it for the purposes of the story, I wonder how often police forces bring in experts from other countries. Imagine if the California officers investigating the Laci Peterson murder called in a profiler from Montreal. The papers would have a field day.

Anyhow, Agent Scott arrives, spends some time in the open grave and gets all juiced up to go. While she and old pal Leclair work well together, other members of the team are less accepting, particularly low-burning Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and hot-tempered hunk Paquette (Olivier Martinez, the “other man” from Unfaithful). My guess is that one of them is related to a local, out-of-work profiler. Agent Scott soon decides that the homicidal kid has spent his life killing men that vaguely resemble him and taking over their lives. Before long, Montreal good Samaritan James Costa (Ethan Hawke) enters the scene to serve as a witness, a suspect, a potential victim and a potential honey bunny for Scott. Later, Kiefer Sutherland will also enter the fray.

Once the set-up is established, the story twists and turns all over the place. Martinez and Jolie have some dandy arguments, while Hawke and Jolie heat up the screen suitably. Traps are set (asked to help lure the killer, one character gravely says, “Have you ever been fishing? The bait always dies.”), things go wrong, people drive the wrong direction on crowded streets and the tension builds nicely as the film approaches its grand, ridiculous climax.

The bottom line is that Taking Lives is creepy and engaging and fun. There’s nothing in the film you haven’t seen before and parts of the story (including the end) are just plain silly, but who cares about the ingredients if the dish tastes good? The recipe works. And so does the one for Pueblo Black Bean Stew. Give it a try.

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