Kiss the Girls (1997)
Admittedly, I am not a book reader. Whatever my issue, I find it difficult to sit down and read a full novel. So, while I have a good amount of say regarding this film, I have no frame of reference on the James Patterson novel it was based on. I like the Alex Cross character very much in what Morgan Freeman has given us, but with all of two films from more than a decade ago, it’s never been much of a film franchise. Both this and its follow-up Along Came A Spider (whose novel is actually a prequel to this) have similar problems, but Kiss the Girls is definitely the better of the two. Still, it doesn’t live up to the potential it could’ve had.
Washington, D.C. forensic psychologist Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) travels to North Carolina to investigate the apparent kidnapping of his niece Naomi. The local police have the evidence, but not the investigative intuitiveness to put the pieces together. Meanwhile, the strong willed, yet compassionate surgeon Dr. Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is abducted and later escapes from this collector and killer of exceptional woman who calls himself “Casanova.” Now, aided by the sole escapee, Cross begins an investigation that takes him from one coast to the other and back trying to identify and capture the disillusioned “great lover.”
The actors in the film’s central focus, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, are both very good. Judd makes Kate a very empowering character from the start, and she is easily presented as someone you can care about and feel strength from throughout. She’s physically tough, is confident, determined, but also, shows that she has vulnerability and compassion. It’s great that the film introduces her prior to her abduction in order for the audience to see the woman as she is naturally. From there, we are emotionally connected with her through her trauma and recovery. She was a strong person before, and this experience merely solidifies those qualities within her. Judd has plenty of gravitas and vibrancy. She keeps Kate McTiernan a forefront character that continues to stand tall throughout the narrative. It easily demonstrates the strong core of Ashley Judd’s acting ability, and why she has become such a revered talent over these many years.
Freeman is masterful as Alex Cross. He’s always been a very intellectual actor allowing the audience to see the gears turning in his head, and establishing a very particular manner for his roles. He inhabits them all well, and makes them subtly distinct. In this role, he shows us one of the best investigative minds in fiction. Cross is able to see the lines of connection that others can’t because he’s so detail oriented in his work, the same as Freeman is with his acting. When he walks into the squad room with all the abduction victims on the board, it doesn’t take him long to put it all together to understand why they were picked, and what Casanova’s agenda is. Just how Freeman’s eyes operate in a scene say so much of what Alex Cross is thinking and deducing. Cross is also tempered. He is calm and calculating in his investigative process. While the local cops are all a little smarmy and egotistical, Cross maintains a cool perspective on everything bringing a serious psychology to the case. He rarely allows his emotions to dictate his behavior, but even if he doesn’t show it, they can influence it. There’s no denying his personal stakes in this investigation, and that alters how he handles everything. In an interrogation scene, he can’t help but become enraged as a sleazy suspect talks sexually ill of his niece, and that shows that Cross is just as human as anyone. While he can remain focused and professional, maintaining his cool in dangerous situations, he has his limits. Still, he is able to rebound, admit his errors, and ultimately tie things up. Alex Cross, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman, is truly a fascinating characters full of potential. However, despite the strength of the character and the actor, that is not enough to lift the film into exceptional territory.
The unfortunate side of things is that the story and how it unfolds lacks compelling development. The bi-coastal killer plotline with the Gentleman Caller essentially has no pertinent relevance to hunting down Casanova. It comes off as a divergence ultimately added just to throw in some gunfire and stakeout scenes. While it does connect with the main story, it’s ancillary. You could cut it out, and it wouldn’t make a real difference towards the capture of Casanova. It only amounts to a gunshot echoing through the woods that leads Cross to finding the lair, and in time, they likely would’ve found it, regardless. This subplot is there so the characters have somewhere to go and something to do until the final act with its weak twist ending.
This is a negative mark against both Alex Cross films. They both have these twist endings that come out of nowhere which have no organic flow from the story or characters. By how Kiss the Girls is presented, Casanova could’ve turned out to be anyone or no one. Casanova ends up being a character that’s been there in the film all along, but no one knew it. The problem is that there is zero evidence presented throughout the movie towards that end. You take Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects for an example here. When you watch that movie for the first time, you see his performance in one way. However, on repeat viewings you see an entirely different performance because of what you discover at the film’s ending. Spacey himself hasn’t changed, but your perception of the character has. You see a subtle thing here or there that does seem peculiar, and does add up to something more substantive and telling later on. Unfortunately, none of that is here in Kiss the Girls. You can’t re-watch this movie and pick up on something you didn’t notice before in the performance of the actor who turns out to be Casanova. It’s played straight in every scene as if the character is exactly who he appears to be, but then, the performance changes entirely once the twist ending begins. That is very shallow and generic work from script to direction and beyond. A movie with a twist ending like this needs those little clues you can pick up on throughout, but not be able to fully assemble them until our protagonist has. However, when you look back, you see how all the pieces of the puzzle come together seamlessly. None of that exists in this screenplay or film. The ultimate reveal of who Casanova is turns out to be unsatisfying because of this issue.
This is not to say that the actor in question handles this turn poorly. It’s quite an exceptional performance that has substance and an unsettling quality. He sells it well, and doesn’t need a mask or shadows to make him appear intimidating and chilling. It’s simply the execution and lack of pre-existing evidence to that effect which is the failure here. Not to mention, the film ends kind of flat. It’s more about structure than anything. Casanova is dispatched with, and the film ends. All of the character resolution happens before this to make way for the surprise twist after the audience has let their guard down.
I feel like Alex Cross is an extraordinary character inserted into a mediocre film. The story structure is not tight enough to remain thoroughly satisfying, and the mystery of Casanova is not complex enough to really take advantage of Cross’ compelling intellect. There is more mystery about finding Casanova than actually exploring him. In another similar film like Manhunter, it’s all about putting every little piece of forensic and psychological evidence of the killer together to drive the protagonist of Will Graham towards confronting and stopping Francis Dollarhyde. Finding him is as important as discovering who he is from the inside out because they are symbiotic. It’s a chain reaction of one revelation begetting another. Within Alex Cross’ first moments on the case, he’s already figured out Casanova from the inside out, and it just becomes about finding and identifying him. However, this happens so early on in the storyline that actually finding Casanova requires the film to tangle up in a lot of unnecessary plot developments. It’s a great aspect of the character of Cross that he can do that, but it’s also a complication in the plot progression. Every new plot development is a red herring. It misdirects the characters towards something that ends up at a dead end, and only serves to pad out the run time. Also, the Gentleman Caller subplot almost immediately can be perceived as a bust to the audience because his behavior is such a stark opposite to what we experienced with Casanova earlier. Casanova is not a violent, impulsive person. He’s more subdued and even tempered. It’s not a good swerve in the plot, and results in no furthering of the plot or characters.
On the positive side, the cinematography of Aaron Schneider envelopes this film with excellent visual atmosphere. There is definitely some neo noir edge present with strong blacks, a little haze, and solid blue tones throughout. There’s enough light and shadow at play with a restrained color scheme to create a consistently tense visual style. It never gets too heavy, but it surely sets the tone of the world we’re delving into. Despite the shortcomings in the screenplay and story, Schneider’s work makes Kiss the Girls look especially good. The camera work itself might not be of particular note, but its subtle touches punctuate the right dramatic beats. One can take or leave the heavy use of Dutch angles in the final scene, but it’s probably more of sign of the times in the late 90s.
Adding upon that is the very good production design which gives life and personality to various environments. The police squad room looks authentic looking to have many years of use behind it. Casanova’s lair has its peculiar warmth in stark contrast to Dr. Rudolph’s cold, modern home. I like how Kate notes that it doesn’t feel like Casanova, and that design element alone fuel hers and Cross’ inquisitive minds. The environments reflect the characters that primarily inhabit them, and the cinematography captures them perfectly.
The supporting cast is good, some better than others, but none of them have much importance to the story being told. They serve their purposes and roles well, but in most cases, they are easily forgettable. Plus, I find it surprising that the always astounding Brian Cox is wasted in a minor role as Chief Hatfield. He puts in a strong performance, but why use such a powerful, diverse actor in what is essentially a nothing role? This film just seems to have a bad habit of wasting its potential.
I don’t have much exposure to director Gary Fleder’s other work. I recall seeing Runaway Jury several years ago, but it was more the performances from the heavyweight cast that made the impression more than anything. Here, it’s obvious he has a good handle on how to present the genre, and get some stellar performances out of his main actors. However, the loose storyline and pointless plot developments show that he’s not so much interested in presenting a tightly wrapped, riveting, or smart thriller as just going by the numbers. He tries to pass this off as a mystery when there’s only enough genuine storyline to fit into a 30-45 minute film. Everything else is pointless filler that amounts to nothing. Again, I do not know if these issues exist in James Patterson’s novel, but in this film, that’s what I perceive.
Kiss the Girls had the right base elements for a hell of a good thriller with an amazing lead character backed by an equally great actor. Ashley Judd anchors the film well giving Freeman someone to carry the weight with him. The film is boosted further with some nicely atmospheric noir cinematography. The premise is good but underdeveloped. There’s no real chase involved between Cross and Casanova. Nothing where one has to be more cunning than the other to stay ahead. That takes away the urgency, or at least, the relevant immediacy of the plot. You never get the feeling that there’s a connection between the hunter and the hunted, and the best films of this genre establish that in one way or another. Casanova never reacts to Cross as genuine threat, and Cross is too busy chasing down false leads to truly be in sync with his prey. Kiss the Girls is a decent thriller that is generally enjoyable, but lacks enough relevant plot developments to make it anything more than average. Again, Alex Cross feels like a potentially iconic character waiting for a film that is as intelligent and intriguing as he is. Whether we will eventually get that remains to be seen.