Taking Lives: Jolie motors

Our recurring feature on Montreal-shot films examines a 2004 Angelina Jolie thriller, with local landmarks aplenty, French (from France) actors and not much else to recommend it.

Ethan Hawke and Angelina Jolie

Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series exploring films from the vaults shot and/or set in Montreal.

The film: Taking Lives (2004)

Does Montreal play itself? Yes! Remarkably, Taking Lives is set almost entirely in Montreal, although the efforts made to highlight this are pretty uneven. None of the French principals go to the trouble of speaking in anything but their thick Parisian accents, yet they’ve made the effort to make even the smallest of props (a pizza flyer, a driver’s license) accurate. Some of the action happens in Quebec City, which the film seems to consider just a more posh suburb of Montreal, but there’s also a lot of effort to situate the action in the province, with characters spouting off street names and suburban geography that’s not entirely inaccurate. Suffice it to say that Taking Lives has a confused relationship with its own locations.

Notable local talent: In a not-so-surprising twist, all of the major French-Canadian characters are played by actual French-from-France people who make no effort to pick up our nuances. It’s probably a blessing in disguise, considering that I have only witnessed such an effort once (Juliette Lewis’ incomprehensible marble-mouthed turn in Bruce McDonald’s Picture Claire). That means that most local actors get relegated to bit parts as nodding cops (as is the case for Elvis Gratton himself, Julien Poulin) and dead bodies. A pre-fame, pre-Cannes Marie-Josée Croze gets a couple of lines as a spunky, bed-headed medical examiner.

Most egregious local landmark: They are surprisingly few and far between. Despite the film actually being set in Montreal, director DJ Caruso seems far more enamoured with sweeping shots of Quebec’s Château Frontenac (which figures very briefly in the plot, at least). There’s a chase sequence during a particularly animated drum circle at the jazz fest (?!) and a car chase scene on the Jacques Cartier bridge; if nothing else, Caruso sees Montreal’s potential for running around in.

In order for Angelina Jolie to become the all-powerful matriarch of an ever-expanding, tabloid-beloved show-business clan that we know her as today, she had to become a movie star. In order to become a movie star, she had to make a specific kind of movie: slick, handsomely packaged but disposable genre pieces designed to enable said stars to be on multiplexes and pay TV channels in a non-threatening but steady fashion. They’re often the film world’s equivalent to plane-friendly paperbacks; in the particular case of 2004’s Taking Lives, it’s quite literally adapted from one of those.

Jolie plays an eccentric, hotshot FBI profiler named Illeana Scott, who’s called in by Montreal police to catch a particularly wily (but not particularly interesting) serial killer. The Montreal cops (all played by French actors — Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Olivier Martinez — despite having very Queb names like Paquette) find Illeana’s methods perplexing, but her weird tics and unconventional approach lead her to a mysterious woman (Gena Rowlands) who claims to have spotted her long-thought-dead son on a boat in Québec City. This in turn leads them to Manitoban art dealer Costa (Ethan Hawke) who witnessed one of the murders and may be the key to unlock both the mystery and Illeana’s cold, methodical heart.

If you can’t guess who the culprit is from the above summary, drop everything you’re doing and rent the movie immediately: you may well be one of the only people that will glean true pleasure from Taking Lives. One of the numerous would-be-gritty thrillers to follow in the wake of Se7en, Taking Lives is the kind of movie that probably came across better in a world where television had not yet become half Storage Wars and half reruns of Law & Order in its various incarnations. It’s toothless “adult” entertainment that brings gore (and one surprisingly explicit sex scene, considering the otherwise flimsy material) to easily digestible procedural claptrap. It’s competently made and acted, in the same way that one expects a staircase to be competently made enough not to collapse when you step on it.

What’s perhaps more interesting for the purposes of this column is how Taking Lives further defines the clichés of location shooting in our fine city. Everyone lives in Old Montreal or, if they’re particularly wealthy, the McGill Ghetto. All car chases inevitably lead towards Nuns’ Island and the Farine Five Roses sign; all scenes that involving two people delivering exposition will inevitably drive by Lasalle College and the old MovieLand location in Shaughnessy Village. While I’ll contend that I haven’t had the best of luck in picking movies for the column thus far, I find it fascinating that a particular brand of generic mid-budget Hollywood film would employ the same locations as one that came before it.

It’s not surprising why Jolie would accept a role in such a toss-away slice of nothing: her character, while not particularly well-written, goes through virtually every possible situation a heroine can find herself in. It gives Jolie the opportunity to wheel through a series of nervous tics, give assured monologues in which she shows off her extensive forensics knowledge, get naked and vulnerable and literally scrub herself clean of her sins, get fired up and deliver well-placed one-liners and stare soulfully out of a window while it rains outside. It’s a perfectly calibrated stepping stone vehicle, an expensive video résumé submitted for a job as the biggest star on Earth. It’s also completely uninteresting. ■

Alex Rose explores the worst of cinema on his podcast and blog, Why Does it Exist? @whydoesitblog on Twitter.

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