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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004

A little something to help pay the bills


Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Philip Kaufman
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 9
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Twisted" has all the ingredients of a grade-A movie: a mega-wattage cast (Ashley Judd, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Garcia); a brand-name director (Philip Kaufman); a photogenic location (San Francisco). Somehow, these failed to gel in the blender and the end-product is a lumpy, choppy B-movie that . . . hmm, what nice thing can I say . . . has impressive final credits?

News photo
Ashley Judd and Andy Garcia in "Twisted"

The discrepancy between the luxurious, leather-bound menu and the actual fare is perhaps the most compelling thing about it. Similar works have been cropping up lately: "Paycheck" (a John Woo fiasco starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman) and "Gothika" (Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz stuck in a cheesy nightmare) readily come to mind. The common trait in these movies is a curious detachment permeating the frames: Everyone, including the director, seems in a flurry to get this thing over with, get paid and go home. You imagine them sitting around sipping Frappuccinos inbetween takes, exchanging badinage about how they'll use the check to finance yachts and renovate summer homes (or maybe even to finance a more worthwhile film project).

In "Twisted," Samuel L. Jackson appears to be the participant with the coldest feet. You can see it by the way he tosses off his lines, like he was signing autographs for a long line of eager fans: smiling and even occasionally wise-cracking but ultimately bored stiff. He plays a supposedly razor-sharp San Francisco police commissioner named John Mills who had raised his dead partner's daughter and groomed her to be a homicide detective. When we first see Mills he's surrounded by his entourage at San Francisco's famed Tosca Bar, talking loudly about how some dumb killer went to the trouble of dismembering his victim when all the time, there was a "nice, big furnace sitting in his backyard." Mills already seems oafish and insensitive and not even a particularly capable commissioner -- Jackson probably knows this too, but his performance says he couldn't care less.

The other person to share this attitude is director Kaufman, creator of carefully structured, multihued works such as "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and, more recently, the queasy erotic world of "Quills." Kaufman doesn't have an easily recognizable style, but all of his works so far have had a fine, painstakingly woven texture. Certainly none of his previous movies take the sort of shameless shortcuts demonstrated in "Twisted," the kind of plot contrivances that alerts you to the fact this is a product off the Hollywood conveyor belt and headed for that big DVD pile in the sky. For Kaufman fans, it might be taken as a directorial lapse, a quickie work-for-hire that needed to be gotten out of the way before the next grand project.

Placed at the center of all this blase attitude is Ashley Judd, who at least brings a slice of willingness absent in the other actors. She plays Jessica, Mills' protege, who has just been appointed to homicide after collaring a serial killer all by herself. Jessica is more than your ordinary girl-cop: She's got some anger issues that date back to her childhood (her policeman father went on a killing spree, murdered her mom and then committed suicide) and now she's prone to violence. To wind down, she likes to drink too much and pick up strangers in bars. Jessica's personal habits, however, are overlooked -- as long as Mills acts as her guardian angel, no one in the precinct can touch her.

But when one of her one-night stands turns up days later as a brutally battered corpse, her colleagues eye her with suspicion and she even starts to distrust herself. She begins to have blackouts after drinking at home and wakes up with traces of blood on her knuckles. Her partner, Mike (Andy Garcia), acts like he knows more about it, but won't say.

The precinct therapist (David Strathairn) urges her to open up and talk about her problems. She silences everyone with a fierce "I can take care of myself!" but alone in her room, she opens the box containing the file of her father's rampage and gets sentimental. "Twisted" was penned by first-time writer Sarah Thorp, and there's hardly a scene where believability isn't sacrificed for familiar cop/crime-thriller story histrionics.

The film does have brief moments of clarity, though, when the story takes a break from pitching out red herrings and shows us little details of Jessica's personality. Like many Kaufman movies "Twisted" features food, and Jessica always attacks hers with real relish and pleasure. In her own words, she eats "two-fisted" and then says rhetorically: "What can I say? I get hungry." She also knocks back Jack Daniels like they were espressos and makes love to complete strangers with gutsy, undisguised pleasure. "I love watching you eat," Mike tells her as she tears into a baguette and, somehow, this one moment almost redeems the whole movie. It's like a brilliant flash of light suddenly transforming a barren landscape, but the next moment it's gone.

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