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Kiss the Girls (1997)

DIRECTOR: Gary Fleder

CAST:

Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Cary Elwes, Tony Goldwyn, Alex McArthur, Bill Nunn, Jay O. Sanders, William Converse-Roberts, Brian Cox, Jeremy Piven, Gina Ravera, Richard T. Jones, Roma Maffia

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN “SPOILERS”

Crime author James Patterson is a bit like the dime novels you might snatch up at the airport; he doesn’t churn out the stuff of Shakespeare, but it’s a quick, easy read, brisk and compulsively page-turning.  Likewise, Kiss the Girls is such a film, a decent little mystery thriller that provides a brisk couple of hours when looking for something reasonably diverting.  It’s bolstered by a couple of strong lead performances, but one feels a more stylish, atmospheric director like David Fincher (who helmed the darker and more disturbing Se7en, also starring Morgan Freeman) could have done more with the material than the TV-movie look and feel of the comparatively nondescript Gary Fleder.

Patterson’s protagonist is Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), a highly regarded criminal psychiatrist working in Washington, D.C., whose latest case will test not only his detective abilities but his personal willpower. This time he’s looking for his niece Naomi (Gina Ravera), a Durham, North Carolina student who has gone missing in the Research Triangle, the territory of a serial killer/kidnapper who calls himself Casanova, after the legendary lover, and has murdered at least three women and kidnapped eight. Cross theorizes—and dearly hopes—that Casanova’s primary goal is to assemble a harem of concubines, not murder them, and that the other women, including Naomi, are still alive.  But where?  And who is Casanova? Cross eventually joins forces with Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd), an aspiring doctor in Durham and the one woman who manages to make a getaway. Determined to help the other women she left behind, Kate teams up with Cross on a trail that will lead them from Durham to California and back again, uncovering more than they expected…and as they draw closer to Casanova’s identity and hiding place, their own lives are in increasing danger.

The reliable, effortlessly authoritative presence of Morgan Freeman is the biggest ace in the hole the movie possesses, playing Cross as a man of long experience and deep feelings beneath a carefully controlled exterior.  He is nicely-matched with Ashley Judd, who plays Kate as a strong-willed survivor who refuses to be a passive victim.  Freeman and Judd work well together and the movie spends a little time developing them on parallel paths before putting them together, meaning we see them both a little more rounded in their own right.   Supporting roles include Bill Nunn as Alex’s cousin/partner, Jay O. Sanders as an FBI agent assisting the local authorities, Alex McArthur as a local cop, and Brian Cox as the Durham police chief, but all of their roles are thinly-developed and don’t have much screentime.  The weak link is Cary Elwes, who might as well be reprising his smarmy character from last year’s Twister in a performance that’s as overdone as his Southern accent and sticks out like an over-obvious sore thumb whenever he appears (for the most part, this is a minor irk, but becomes a bigger issue in the climax when we’re asked to take him seriously).

The pace moves briskly, with some reasonably clever twists and turns, and the movie does a decent job serving up a few red herrings and possible suspects, including William Converse-Roberts as a lecherous college professor and Tony Goldwyn as a plastic surgeon who becomes a “person of interest” to the investigation.  However, while consistently involving, there are times when the plot stretches credibility, especially in the ways Cross, who’s way out of his jurisdiction, keeps getting away with carrying on an unsanctioned investigation, especially when a civilian like Kate is allowed to tag along with him to a crime scene.  SPOILER WARNING.  The killers’ dynamic is underdeveloped (the book went slightly more into this aspect), and the movie also goes into autopilot in the last scenes, with a climax that’s overly generic and by-the-numbers.  “Casanova” doesn’t end up being an especially memorable villain, and his partner-in-crime is even more thinly-developed.  Differences from James Patterson’s novel are fairly minor, with the most significant deviation being Cross’ age. In the book, not only is Cross closer to Kate’s age, there is clearly an underlying attraction between them. Word has it that Denzel Washington was originally considered (ironically Richard T. Jones, who has a small role as Naomi’s boyfriend, bears an uncanny vocal resemblance to Washington).

Apart perhaps from Casanova’s underground, dungeon-like lair and Kate’s harrowing escape, running with aimless desperation through a seemingly endless forest, her pursuer represented only by his enraged screams from somewhere behind her, there’s a disappointing lack of atmosphere and a flat, TV-movie look and sometimes feel to Gary Fleder’s undistinguished direction, leaving one wondering what a more accomplished, atmospheric director like David Fincher might have done with the same material.  One could imagine Fincher easily making certain scenes more memorable than the pedestrian way Fleder helms them.

Kiss the Girls is a few rungs down the ladder to the likes of The Silence of the Lambs; it’s not as dark or hard-hitting, doesn’t leave as much of a lasting impression, and the climax, with a showdown with the “surprise” killer, is generic and familiar.  But as usual, Morgan Freeman is a pleasure to watch, and Ashley Judd provides strong support. Like the book it’s based on, it’s compulsively involving, but not a classic thriller.

* * 1/2

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