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Kiss the Girls
  [rating: 2 of 4 stars]movie review by Gary Johnson

America's obsession with serial killers continues with Kiss the Girls. With stories of new serial killers grabbing the headlines every few weeks, Americans have struggled with what it means to become a serial killer. How could anyone's brain get so screwed up that they would derive pleasure from killing other people? Movies such as Silence of the Lambs and Seven have given us the opportunity to peek behind the scenes and see all the horrific details, the garroted throats and the severed limbs. Now Kiss the Girls gives us a killer who doesn't actually set out to become a killer. Primarily, he wants control, to place a woman in his complete power. So he kidnaps beautiful, intelligent women and holds them captive. It's a fascinating idea--although, director William Wyler covered the same terrain in his underrated psychological thriller The Collector in 1965.

However, Kiss the Girls has the structure of a mystery, which means we don't find out very much about the killer, who calls himself "Casanova" in his notes to the police. The screenwriters seemed to sense the problem, for they give us a masked killer who never lets his victims see his face. He caresses their necks and foreheads and speaks in velvety tones, but because of the mystery format, we can't find out who the killer is until the last few minutes of the movie. As a result, Casanova remains a mystery, for the filmmakers can't lift back the veil from his face so that we can begin to see how his mind operates. In the process, Kiss the Girls sinks from being an edgy, nerve-rattling psychological study into becoming a bland, by-the-numbers thriller.

Morgan Freeman and Jay O. Sanders in Kiss the Girls.
(©1997 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

At times, the movie comes close to realizing its potential, as in the eerie voiceover narration that starts the film and leads us into the killer's mind. He tells us about living in the attic of a house and peering down at the mother and her two teenage daughters who lived below him. One day he came down from his attic room. "They were in love with me," he says. "They just didn't know it." And he showed them how much they loved him by raping and murdering them. In this scene, we get to experience the strange, twisted logic that works within the killer's mind. And when he kidnaps a doctor played by Ashley Judd (Ruby in Paradise), he meets her cries of "What do you want from me?" with his calm statement of "You're here to fall in love Don't worry you're with Casanova." But afterwards, we never again get the same type of insights into his mind. We see a well-cultured, intelligent man who treats his victims with alternating doses of sensitivity and brutality. But the who-done-it format always keeps us at arm's length.

Director Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) doesn't help matters by filming Kiss the Girls in a conventional Hollywood fashion. He has purposely avoided the hyper-stylized approach of Seven. He gives us a movie that looks recognizably ordinary and then he shows us the danger just beneath the surface. However, the camerawork in Kiss the Girls is anonymous, only conveying the obvious. For example, Fleder gives us several scenes in the forests of North Carolina, where the killer keeps his victims. Bright light slices through the thin trees while leaves crunch under foot. Throughout the rest of the movie, nature creeps into other scenes as well, as if we're supposed to associate it with the killer. But it's a weak association, for there is nothing dangerous about the nature that Fleder gives us. In fact the movie's organic qualities give us a welcome respite from Casanova's cold, intellectual nature. Other scenes in the movie suggest that the nature/killer relationship is misguided at best. For example, when McTiernan escapes from Casanova's underground lair, she runs through the forest and ultimately escapes because Casanova can't follow her after she plunges over a cliff. As a result, nature actually plays a role in saving her life.

Ashley Judd in kickboxing gear in Kiss the Girls.
(©1997 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Ashley Judd plays the captive who escapes. She's a marvelous actress who gives her character a strong, quiet strength. Judd gives us the portrait of a sensitive, caring woman who lives alone and practices kickboxing in her spare time. With an understated dignity, she allows us into the life of Kate McTiernan. Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman plays forensic detective and best-selling crime author Alex Cross. Like Judd, Freeman brings his role a strong dose of compassion and calm reserve.

Alex Cross becomes involved after his niece disappears. He ventures to Durham, North Carolina to look for clues, and he runs into a police force that isn't particularly interested in helping him. They see his presence as a threat to their own investigation. Cross soon discovers that his niece's kidnapping is related to similar disappearances, but getting information out of the Durham police force isn't easy. So he embarks on his own investigation.

If judged solely on the performances of Judd and Freeman, Kiss the Girls would be an outstanding movie. However, they are much better than the rest of the material. The screenplay gives us an idiot plot situation: after McTiernan escapes from Casanova, why doesn't she return with the police to where she was found? Casanova's liar would be only a few hundred yards away. But no, the movie takes us across the country instead. Alex Cross thinks the answer to the crimes lies in California, so he convinces McTiernan to follow him there. (Jeremy Piven of TV's Ellen is excellent and very funny as a California police detective who tries to help Cross and McTiernan.) Most of these scenes just provide camouflage. The real story is back in the woods of North Carolina. When they finally return there, the suspense has been so diluted that the movie's shocks lack bite. Even a potentially horrific journey through the killer's lair, draws a blank. Kiss the Girls isn't exactly a bad movie, but it never delivers the payoff that it promises. All the scenes seem familiar, as if we've already seen them in better movies.


Go to the Kiss the Girls Web site

Go to the Paramount Web site

A Paramount Pictures Presentation


Alex CrossMorgan Freeman
Kate McTiernanAshley Judd
Nick RuskinCary Elwes
SikesAlex McArthur
Will RudolphTony Goldwyn
Kyle CraigJay O. Sanders
SampsonBill Nunn
Chief HatfieldBrian Cox
Seth SamuelRichard T. Jones
Dr. RuoccoRoma Maffia
Henry CastilloJeremy Piven
Naomi CrossGina Ravera
Dr. Wick SachsWilliam Converse-Roberts
Directed byGary Fleder
Produced byDavid Brown
Joe Wizan
Screenplay byDavid Klass
Based on the Novel byJames Patterson
Director of PhotographyAaron Schneider
Production DesignerNelson Coates
Edited byWilliam Steinkamp
Harvey Rosenstock
Music byMark Isham
Costume DesignerAbigail Murray
Executive ProducerC.O. Erickson
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