A `Twisted' Treat

Philip Kaufman's smart new film - hard-boiled thriller meets check flick - makes a killer combination.

February 27, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The heroine of the snappy, sexy thriller Twisted is a hard-drinking San Francisco homicide detective (Ashley Judd) who endures sudden, puzzling blackouts while on the trail of a serial killer. Yet in a happy irony, the movie leaves you feeling perked-up and clearheaded.

Twisted is an unusual forensic crime film because it's witty and sophisticated as well as taut and creepy. Judd's smart, can-do cop goes in for one-night stands, often with tough customers - and the male bodies that mount up belong to her eight-hour fun-mates. Because she's also the daughter of a cop who turned serial killer and made her mother his last victim, Judd begins to worry that homicide is in her blood.

Her competence as a detective and uncertainty as a woman are a dynamite dramatic combination and the center for an ideal cosmopolitan date movie. Men and women will want to debate not only how easily she falls into the sack but also what goes on within her head. The movie throws open a playful Pandora's box that transforms questions of male-female double standards and nature vs. nurture into alluring figments of mystery. It doesn't analyze everything to death. Far more entertainingly, it follows John Wayne's wisdom from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: "Never apologize and never explain - it's a sign of weakness."

Sarah Thorp's script provides a sharp-edged hook, and filmmaker Philip Kaufman saturates that hook in atmosphere and psychological suggestion, reveling in his crackerjack performers and the fog-drenched Bay Area settings. Kaufman, the San Francisco-based director of The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, knows the odd corners of the city's misty parks and sea-lion-laden piers and lived-in saloons; he even stages a scene in the waters outside its ballpark while the Giants are playing a game. He lets you taste the city's lusciousness in packed frame after packed frame. (Peter Deming did the darkly sumptuous cinematography and Peter Boyle the razor-cut editing.)

In Twisted, San Francisco is a city where the cops alone appear to break their backs - even the criminals and lawyers work on loose schedules and give in to the thick, sensuous environment. Twisted presents a Looking for Mr. Goodbar lifestyle without the Gothic moralism of that movie, partly because, in San Francisco, even the elements of danger make up a game, and the men and women players know the rules. (In some ways, it's the movie that the fiasco In the Cut wanted to be.)

With her hair cropped close and her compact body dressed for action, Judd resembles Mariska Hargitay in NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit but acts with a springiness and savvy all her own. Twisted propels Judd's proven appeal in surprising directions and thus helps you appreciate the humor and skill she's always had. She doesn't lose any of the lickety-split proficiency that drew audiences to her in women-in-jeopardy or women's-revenge films such as Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls and High Crimes. She often plays hands-on professionals or quick studies; it fits her pulse as a performer. But in Twisted, glibness gets her nowhere. Her hair-trigger reflexes with martial arts and a wooden Japanese hand weapon backfire when she suspects that she flies off the handle during her blackouts. Her chipper attitude becomes a mask - and she can't keep it from slipping.

While careening from corpse to corpse, man to man, suspect to suspect, she and her co-stars put a range of male-female relationships through a funhouse mirror. She gets a different rhythm going with each of them, whether Samuel L. Jackson as the police commissioner who was also her late father's partner and, later, her guardian; Andy Garcia as her new partner in the homicide division; and Mark Pellegrino as a one-time partner and lover who made her swear off business mixed with pleasure.

After sweating his way through some routine action assignments like S.W.A.T., Jackson imbues his department honcho with a demigodly carriage and flair that sweep up onlookers in his aura of specialness. It's a regal performance. Garcia has rarely been as much at ease, playing a man at home on the waterfront, in a bar or in his kitchen. His relaxed authority persuades us that he can get close to his wary partner. And Judd and Pellegrino perform with the pinpoint specificity of ex-lovers who can push each other's buttons.

A first-rate director fixed on entertainment, Kaufman builds on the premise instinctively, by filling out each moment. He produces suspense as well as smiles of recognition at Judd's friction with the various men in Homicide (Russell Wong is a standout as her no-nonsense lieutenant) and at her ambiguous relationship with a shrink (the marvelously suggestive David Straithairn). And the director casually introduces glancing mysteries such as the Chinese woman who eerily appears each night in the kitchen window across from Judd's.

Kaufman fills the movie with enigmas that reveal themselves unexpectedly. It ends quickly, in darkness. What a relief to be in the hands of a director who doesn't draw anything out! But the finale gives you a lift in the best way, and not just because the villain "gets it." Most mysteries labor to answer a simple question: Whodunit? What's special about Twisted is the way it answers that question. It keeps you guessing, but it also allows you to experience Judd's emotions with unusual intimacy as she gambols through San Francisco. It gives you the elation of a spunky gal coming of age in a strange, beautiful town.

Twisted

Starring Ashley Judd, Andy Garcia, Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Released by Paramount

Rated R

Time 97 minutes

Sun Score ****

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