"Kiss the Girls" is a derivative but fairly effective "Seven" knockoff, right down to its casting of Morgan Freeman in the leading role of a shrewd detective pursuing a crafty and kinky serial criminal. Replete with smart, capable characters and crimes so bizarre that they lend the film a suspiciously lurid nature, this tony suspenser is hampered by the presence of a villain who is all too obvious from the very beginning.

Kiss the Girls” is a derivative but fairly effective “Seven” knockoff, right down to its casting of Morgan Freeman in the leading role of a shrewd detective pursuing a crafty and kinky serial criminal. Replete with smart, capable characters and crimes so bizarre that they lend the film a suspiciously lurid nature, this tony suspenser is hampered by the presence of a villain who is all too obvious from the very beginning. Pic’s debt to last fall’s surprise smash is obvious enough to serve both as a lure to some viewers and a turnoff to others, with good if not great B.O. potential lying in wait with sophisticated upscale audiences, the general popcorn crowd and, significantly, with black filmgoers.

In its desire to generate an air of perverse creepiness with a brainier context than the average thriller, Gary Fleder’s second feature, after “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” apes not only “Seven” but “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Copycat.” New pic is more routine than its predecessors in virtually every respect, especially in its portrayal of the sicko criminal element, but goes out of its way to ensure that its principal characters, especially the kidnapped woman played by Ashley Judd, are self-assured individuals who simply refuse to be victims.

Freeman plays Dr. Alex Cross, a forensic psychologist on the Washington, D.C., police force, as well as a bestselling author, who zips down to Durham, N.C., in his Porsche when his niece Naomi turns up missing. Naomi, however, is just one of eight very attractive young women who have recently disappeared in the area. The local policemen on the case (Cary Elwes and Alex McArthur) have found just two bodies, each one tied to a tree and sexually ravaged. In both cases, the killer has signed his handiwork, “Casanova.”

In short order, a lovely local doctor in what is called the Research Triangle, Kate McTiernan (Judd), whose favorite sport happens to be kickboxing, is abducted from her remote family home and strapped down in a dungeon-like cell. Confronted by a man whose face is disguised by a Jason-like mask and whose voice seems electronically altered, Kate is told in no uncertain terms not to call for help or try to escape.

Naturally, given her defiant nature, she does both, shouting out to establish contact with the women held in the other underground chambers, and physically overcoming her captor to make a run at freedom, which she manages at the cost of some injuries and a heavy case of post-traumatic shock.

All the same, Kate is able to confirm the wily Alex’s early suspicions: The perpetrator is a “collector,” a man dedicated to maintaining a “harem” of strong-willed women who have no choice but to submit to his demands. This aspect of the story raises the unsavory specter of queasy voyeurism; the spectacle of the captive Naomi being forced to play classical violin by candlelight in the presence of her sisters in bondage, at the command of the still-disguised Casanova, smacks of a particularly disagreeable sort of highbrow kinkiness.

But Kate bounces back to help Alex and the other detectives try to track down Casanova in a hunt that leads, midway through the story, to Los Angeles when a parallel series of crimes, executed by someone dubbed “The Gentleman Caller,” turns up there; yarn’s most intriguing twist is that there may not be just one criminal but two, working either in tandem or as competitors.

As is often the case, Freeman invests this project with more class and dignity than it probably deserves, his gravity, intelligence and precision as an actor being a joy to behold. At the film’s opening, his Alex is seen talking a desperate woman out of committing suicide, and Freeman makes Alex’s persuasive techniques utterly convincing. Although his background, including immediate family relations, is not filled in, his strong feeling for his kin shown here, and his determination to find Naomi alive, are palpable.

Judd, game and looking very fit, plays the polar opposite of the innumerable wilting lilies in need of rescue who have been seen onscreen over the decades. As mentally sharp and physically tough as she is, it is a bit disappointing when she is forced merely to tag along for the ride during the picture’s midsection. But she is given a major fight scene at the end when she must fend off the villain one last time, an episode rendered weak only by its groaningly obvious revelation of the bent genius’s identity. Of the supporting players, Jay O. Sanders stands out as an FBI buddy of Alex’s.

David Klass’ adaptation of James Patterson’s novel and Fleder’s direction pull the viewer along in solid fashion, faltering mostly when the film panders to alternately trendy and overworked notions. Tech work is solid, with Mark Isham’s moody score particularly worthy.

Kiss the Girls

Production

A Paramount release presented in association with Rysher Entertainment of a David Brown/Joe Wizan production. Produced by Brown, Wizan. Executive producer, C.O. Erickson. Co-producer, Steve Wizan. Directed by Gary Fleder. Screenplay, David Klass, based on the novel by James Patterson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Aaron Schneider; editors, William Steinkamp, Harvey Rosenstock; music, Mark Isham; production design, Nelson Coates; art direction, Joseph Hodges; set decoration, Linda Lee Sutton; costume design, Abigail Murray; sound (Dolby digital/DTS), Lee Orloff; assistant director, Michael Zimbrich; second unit director/second unit camera, Rick Bota; casting, Deborah Aquila, Jane Shannon-Smith. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., Sept. 10, 1997. (In Deauville Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 min.

With

Alex Cross - Morgan Freeman
Kate McTiernan - Ashley Judd
Nick Ruskin - Cary Elwes
Will Rudolph - Tony Goldwyn
Kyle Craig - Jay O. Sanders
Sampson - Bill Nunn
Chief Hatfield - Brian Cox
Sikes - Alex McArthur
Seth Samuel - Richard T. Jones
Henry Castillo - Jeremy Piven
Dr. Wick Sachs - William Converse-Roberts
Naomi Cross - Gina Ravera
Dr. Ruocco - Roma Maffia

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