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Review: Killer performances in 'Kiss the Girls'

movie strip October 19, 1997
Web posted at: 11:45 p.m. EDT (0345 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It used to be that a genre film was a gangster movie or an epic romance or a romantic comedy. By now, though, we've picked the bones of writerly imagination to the point that we actually have the "serial killer doing inventively nasty things to women" genre. I know these are just movies, and there have been murder mysteries since Edgar Allen Poe, but you have to wonder exactly how we got here. Or, more to the point, exactly where we're heading.

vxtreme Kiss the Girls

"Kiss the Girls" is not a completely successful film, not even close, but it's far better than I figured it would be. If you have a taste for this stuff (in the abstract, of course), you should be able to get your nine bucks worth. I was thoroughly absorbed in the first hour, and quickly locked on to the lead performances by Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, an actress who finally seems to be blossoming into a consistent leading lady. But I don't want to pretend that I got my jollies from the movie as a whole. It's a matter of personal taste, of course, but I think the general vibe in these movies ("Seven" being a near-immoral example) is a little too grotesquely heavy to really do anybody much good.

I'm not being a prude about this. I still feel "The Silence of the Lambs" is one of the best films of the decade, but it set an unfortunate precedent when that wacko was dancing around his lair like David Lee Roth wearing a people-skin coat. One-upsmanship lies at the core of the commercial filmmaking process, and that's terribly unfortunate situation when it comes to depictions of sociopaths brutalizing young women.

In "Kiss the Girls," Morgan Freeman plays Alex Cross, a famous Washington, D.C., forensics specialist who's compelled to enter an investigation in Durham, North Carolina, when his niece is abducted by the friendly neighborhood serial killer. At first, we're led to believe (by the over-abundance of southern-fried sidelong glances) that the issue of Freeman's race will play a part in the story, but this implication (like a couple other ideas in the movie) is never fleshed-out into anything significant. Let's face it, audiences are more concerned with the sick stuff.

The killer, who calls himself Casanova, is abducting women and storing them in some sort of rock dungeon out in the woods. He considers himself a connoisseur, so he only picks beautiful, talented, intellectual types from a nearby college campus. This is why he eventually abducts the lovely Ashley Judd, who plays (get this) a highly compassionate doctor/kickboxer. Maybe it's just me, but this character seems more than a little bit contradictory. It never occurred to Ben Casey that he needed to kick anybody.

Serial killers in the movies, as we all know by now, aren't just smart, they're brilliantly amazingly brilliant geniuses who are more likely to be found splitting atoms with a dinner fork than playing Nintendo. That's the case here, as Casanova knows exactly which drug to inject his captives with in order to keep them suspended in a stoned submission when need be. He's also provided individual cells for the seven or eight women he's locked away. Sort of an S&M Ramada Inn. Judd, who is born to play determined, self-possessed women, manages to escape from Casanova, leaving her prison mates behind. After getting out of the hospital (she falls into a coma after jumping off a cliff into a river during her escape), she bravely helps Freeman go after her abductor.

Yeah, right. Forensics officers are always staking out possible mass murderers with one of the killer's would-be victims manning binoculars in the front seat of the cop car. Until this unlikely occurrence, the movie really had me going. I think Judd is a near-great actress. She hasn't gotten very tasty roles since her dynamic turn in Victor Nunez's "Ruby in Paradise," and it's good to see her once again having more to do than, say, trying to ignore the fact that Val Kilmer is sort of a dope (see "Heat"). I grew up in Alabama, and it's easy to see the Southern Girl gentility in Judd's eyes (not that all Southerners have it, mind you.) She just seems plain decent, and you really can't help being drawn to her when she's on camera. I'm awaiting great things from her. "Kiss the Girls" isn't the big enchilada, though, mostly because the script gets pretty loose and lazy after her nerve-wracking escape.

If Morgan Freeman were to look straight at me and tell me I have a poodle sitting on my head, I'd believe him. He hasn't given a weak performance since "The Electric Company," and, to a large degree, he and Judd share the same gift. They're very naturalistic communicators, so a lot of the more ridiculous stuff in the film plays a bit more believably than it really should. You just buy it coming out of their mouths. After a while the clichˇs start kicking in, though, and then there's a damn silly finale, but Judd and Freeman brought me through it with a minimum of wincing.

"Kiss the Girls" is pretty vile, but what do you expect? Women beaten and held prisoner against their will, slashings, shootings, stabbings. Implications of rape and torture. There will be no Happy Meal tie-ins. Rated R. 117 minutes.


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