Taking Lives (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

There were reviewers who dumped hard on this film, and Roger Ebert recommended it. We did not fall into either camp. We don't recommend it except for genre nuts and Jolie lovers, but we didn't think it was such an awful watch either.

Scoop's comments in white (COMPLETE SPOILERS):

This is a thriller with something like three consecutive surprise endings, and I am going to spoil almost all of the surprises for you in the process of dissing this script, so I suggest that you continue only if you have already seen the movie, or do not care to.

This film had a lot of potential.

The cops in Montreal have a bizarre serial killer on their hands - an identity stealer. He kills a victim in such a way as to leave the remains unrecognizeable, then he assumes the identity of the dead person. The police know nothing about the killer, because he commits every crime as a different person - the previous victim. The police have nothing but a string of unidentified corpses, and they can't match them up with missing persons because nobody is missing - the killer assumes their lives.

Bewildered, the Chief of the Montreal police calls upon someone who understands this kind of case, an American profiling specialist from the FBI. This might not be standard procedure, but the Chief and the Special Agent had worked together in the past, so ...

The Special Agent is Angelina Jolie, who comes off as a cross between Sherlock Holmes and the Edward Norton character in Red Dragon. She is capable of placing herself completely inside the mind of the killer, but she also spews out a string of scientific, Holmesian deductions.

There is a break in the case. The killer is actually caught in the act of committing the crime - or so the police think. The man they caught, however, claims that he surprised the killer in the act of murder, and that he was only a witness who was performing CPR on the victim. Given the fact that his story sounds like complete bullshit, and that he doesn't actually know any CPR, the police are about to lock him up and throw away the key until Special Agent Jolie intervenes. She interviews the guy for a while, studies the evidence, and then concludes that the guy is telling the truth based on a series of psychological evaluations, coupled with some hard evidence.

It was the hard evidence that convinced the police (and me). The killer must have been left-handed, but the guy in custody is obviously right handed. He can't be the murderer. His story must be true. Using his right hand, he provides a sketch of the murderer he saw, and the police soon track the guy down by using the witness for bait. 

Fairly good set-up. Since the killer is an identity stealer, he won't be easy to catch, because he might show up as anybody, and the police will not know if they actually have found him.

Here comes the spoiler.

But there is a problem. The guy that the police had in custody was the murderer after all. The description he gave to the police of the alleged murderer was actually another bad guy who was trying to kill him for a large unpaid debt. He figured he could get out of the murder rap and get rid of his underworld enemy at the same time. Pretty slick concept.

Only one flaw.

The script ignored the "scientific evidence" that eliminated the guy from suspicion in the first place. He was right handed.

Is that a cheat, or what? The police, and concurrently the audience, knew that he could not be the killer because of that scientific evidence. But it turned out he was the killer. Did they try to explain it in some way, like maybe a transposed x-ray that made it seem that the left side of a victim's skull was actually his right? Nope. They simply didn't mention it. Bottom line: the killer was the guy who could not be the killer. Well, you can't deny that it did provide a surprise ending. Like the Montreal police, I had eliminated that guy as a suspect based on Special Agent Jolie's analysis, despite the fact that he seemed to be the obvious murderer. So, of course, I was surprised when he turned out to be the murderer after all, even though he could not have been!

That is some lazy scriptwriting. I thought to myself that there might be an explanation. We know that the killer had to be left handed, so perhaps he was only pretending to be right handed when he was in custody, knowing that he could fool the police by doing so.

There was a way to test that theory. If that was the case, there would be no longer be a need for him to pretend once everyone knew he was the killer, right?

So I went to the scenes that took place after he was unmasked and  ... no dice. He was clearly right-handed (see right). What can you say? The killer was left handed. Ethan Hawke was right handed. But he was the killer. Give that one to your symbolic logic professor.

Of course, the script had to use the left-handed red herring. If it had not, the solution would have been perfectly obvious from the first twenty minutes of the film. If you look at Tuna's comments below, you'll see that he simply ignored the red herring, went with his expectation of where the film would go, and that is exactly where it went. The plot therefore managed to be both predictable and illogical, a difficult combination to achieve!

That was only one example of the sloppiness of this film. Other problems included:

1. Before the killer was identified, Jolie had a brief physical encounter with him in his childhood home. (They know who he used to be, just not who he is now.) They wrestled briefly, in the dark, and he got away. Remember now, that the killer is played by Ethan Hawke, the man who was originally in custody before Jolie eliminated him "scientifically". Once he was eliminated as a suspect, and the "real killer" was dead, Jolie eventually had an affair with him. But Jolie somehow does not realize that the man she was wrestling with and the man she was making love to were the same man. Does that sound plausible to you?

2. The three Montreal cops were played by Frenchmen. I wouldn't be able to verify this personally, but according to the French-Canadian reviewers, those three guys all spoke French with French accents, not with Quebecois accents. That is roughly equivalent to having tough cops from the Bronx being played by guys who speak like Hugh Grant. Mickey Blue Eyes, anyone?

3. When the Prime Suspect is being grilled by the cops and comes up with his unlikely CPR story, he claims that "there was just so much blood. I never saw that much blood." Yet his shirt is virtually blood free, and the cops never question him about that. Wouldn't real cops be saying, "show us exactly how you performed this CPR", and then validating his explanation by matching the blood stains on his clothes to the places where he actually should have blood stains if he did what he claimed to be doing?

4. The killer was an identical twin and his brother was supposed to be dead! 'Nuff said.

5. I won't even tell you about the final-final-final surprise ending, which was just too preposterous for words. If you still want to see this, there's one more big surprise waiting for you.

6. David Fincher (SE7EN) should sue these guys for something. There are at least two separate scenes of the cops going through disgusting, filthy crime and evidence scenes by using flashlights in unlighted rooms.


Angelina Jolie showed her breasts in a sex scene, then 90% of a breast in a nude bathroom scene obscured by the plumbing.

Tuna's comments in yellow:

Taking Lives (2004) is a serial killer on the loose story, this time in Montreal. Angelina Jolie is an FBI profiler brought in to assist.

Let's start with the best parts of the film

  • Angelina Jolie's breasts.
  • One gratuitous but very effective startle moment.

OK, so much for good things.

There is really nothing wrong with the performances, the problem is with the plot. It is utterly predictable, and when it neared the end without revealing the surprise identity I was expecting, I was ready to trade in my DVD drive. That's how sure I was. Well, I still have the DVD drive, and the story went precisely where I knew it had to from about the 30 minute point in the film. While I like the genre, predictability is a very bad thing in my scheme of things.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Unrated version of the film.

  •  There are five "making of" featurettes, and a short "gag reel"

  • Excellent anamorphic transfer

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It looks like it will finish in the $30-$35 million range. That is disappointing for a movie with a production budget of $45 million and another $25 million in marketing and distribution costs.

Dissenting Vote ...

  • Straying from the herd of negative reviews, maverick Ebert argued, "a certain genre of thriller depends more upon style and tone than upon plot; it doesn't matter if you believe it walking out, as long as you were intrigued while it was happening." Needless to say, I am in partial disagreement. I think tone and style are the icing on the top of a thriller, but that the plot has to work to begin with, or there is no cake to ice. In order for the plot to work, it must be (a) solid (b) original. The plot of Taking Lives has neither quality.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C- (Scoop) or C (Tuna). Jolie is an interesting performer, and the film started out quite intriguing in a Fincheresque way. Unfortunately, it unraveled with a series of lazy tricks, followed by some truly improbable twists after the killer was unmasked. It ended up being an Ashley Judd movie without Ashley Judd, a barely adequate genre film filled with cheap tricks instead of genuine mystery.

Return to the Movie House home page