Kiss the Girls (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Every time audiences are presented with a reasonably well-made serial killer movie, they line up for it. Why? Human beings are irresistibly fascinated by the lurid, the horrifying, and the depraved, and what could be more attention-grabbing than an individual who murders repeatedly in sick and twisted ways? Of course, serial killers (both real and fictional) have provided material for countless movies, but most of those are artless hack jobs, replacing tension and intelligence with gore and cliches. So, when a movie comes along that's a cut above the usual, it's worth making note of. Kiss the Girls is such a film.

I'm not saying that Kiss the Girls is a great motion picture, nor am I arguing that it's the best of its kind to come out in recent years. But it features a pair of well-developed characters, the plot contains some clever twists and turns, the dialogue is reasonable, and director Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) keeps the level of tension and intrigue high. Put together, all of that adds up to a worthwhile motion picture. Fans of Seven and Silence of the Lambs will likely agree that their $8 admission for Kiss the Girls is well spent.

Kiss the Girls wouldn't be nearly as involving without the two strong performances of the leads. Morgan Freeman, in a role not unlike the one he essayed in Seven, plays Dr. Alex Cross, a Washington D.C. forensic pathologist who travels to Durham, N.C., when his niece, Naomi (Gina Ravera), disappears. Freeman plays Alex as an insightful, confident investigator with powerful emotions bubbling just beneath his calm, carefully-controlled exterior. Despite a less-than-enthusiastic greeting by Durham's chief of police, Alex learns that Naomi is the eighth young woman to disappear recently, all of whom fit the same description: intelligent, strong-willed, college-age, attractive, and talented. Three are already dead, but Alex suspects that the primary interest of the killer (who calls himself "Casanova") is not murder. Instead, the doctor sees him as "a collector."

Disappearance #9 is Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd), an intern at the Carolina Regional Medical Center. As Kate, Judd adds another impressive performance to a growing resume. The actress plays her character as outwardly-tough and self-sufficient with an inner core of vulnerability. She may be a target, but she refuses to be a victim, and it's hard to miss the fire in her eyes. Nevertheless, vulnerability, whether emotional or physical, is something she has a hard time coping with. One night, Kate is abducted from her house and brought to a lightless room where she is bound and drugged. But, by taking her masked captor unawares, she escapes in what is one of Kiss the Girls' best filmed-sequences (it uses a never-stationary camera and a numerous point-of-view shots to convey Kate's anxiety in the midst of a menacing forest that is concealing Casanova as he pursues her). Later, after surviving a fall into a river where she nearly drowns, Kate joins forces with Alex for one purpose: to bring Casanova to justice.

One thing I appreciate about Kiss the Girls is its willingness to spend time developing the characters before jumping into the main story. During the first twenty minutes, we gather information about both Alex and Kate. Later, the relationship between these two is developed in an intentionally ambiguous manner. There are times when it manifests itself almost as a father/daughter bond, but, on other occasions, there's a sense of latent romance. However, the film underplays this dynamic to avoid wandering off on a tangent.

Despite being consistently involving, Kiss the Girls, based on the best-selling novel by James Patterson, has its share of flaws. On several occasions, the film's blatant ignorance of real-world police procedures strains the viewer's credibility. I found it hard to accept that one man, even if he is a brilliant and respected police psychologist, could carry on an unsanctioned investigation in such a high-profile case (especially considering that a key member of his team, Kate, is a civilian and a witness). I also have a gripe about the end scenes, which are overly familiar.

With one exception, the acting is solid. That exception is Cary Elwes, who has been playing a parody of his previous self ever since starring in Mel Brooks' failed Robin Hood spoof, Men in Tights. Although Elwes only portrays a small-town cop, and doesn't steal any scenes, he's never particularly believable, and every time he's on screen, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Other, more effective supporting actors include Brian Cross as Durham's chief detective, Bill Nunn as one of Alex's associates, Jay O. Sanders as the FBI agent in charge of the official investigation, and Tony Goldwyn as a West Coast plastic surgeon who may in some way be involved with the crimes.

The film makers, with a nod to the success of Seven, have apparently decided to mimic the grim atmosphere and in-your-face cinematography of that movie (light, darkness, and shadow are used to great effect here). Stylistically, Kiss the Girls is very similar, and the presence of Morgan Freeman only heightens the connection. Even though there are vast plot differences between the two, both are well-made and are likely to appeal to the same kind of audience. So, much like Seven, Kiss the Girls makes for a suspenseful, if somewhat bleak, two hours.

Kiss the Girls (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1997-10-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1