Dreary, weary psychosexual thriller that's neither sexy nor thrilling. Despite presence of a strong cast and the participation of director Philip Kaufman, pic plays as a moderately sleazy but otherwise strictly by-the-numbers mystery. No detective work is required to deduce that it will not be the hit to reverse Par's recent streak of box office misfortune.

A dreary, weary psychosexual thriller that’s neither sexy nor thrilling, “Twisted” is a fossilized remnant of an era when salacious Joe Eszterhas screenplays commanded seven-figure paydays and A-list talent lined up to make them. Despite the presence of a strong cast and the participation of director Philip Kaufman (in his first outing since “Quills” in 2000), pic plays as a moderately sleazy but otherwise strictly by-the-numbers mystery lacking anything resembling a personal touch — or a compelling reason to care who the killer is. No detective work is required to deduce that “Twisted” will not be the hit to reverse Par’s recent streak of box office misfortune.

Toplining Ashley Judd in the type of woman-in-distress part that is becoming her specialty (following 1997’s “Kiss the Girls” and 2002’s “High Crimes”), pic begins with her character, San Francisco policewoman Jessica Shepard, in a particularly tight spot. Having caught up with a wanted felon, Edmund Culter (Leland Orser), Shepard finds herself wrapped in Culter’s tight embrace, a knife perilously pointed at her throat and no way to call for backup. Then, with a few swift martial-arts moves, she turns the tables on her too-close-for-comfort suspect, painfully knocking him to the ground and even walloping him a few more times for good measure.

That show of brute force earns Shepard a promotion to the elite rank of homicide inspector, where she’s paired with a new partner, Mike Delmarco (Andy Garcia), and where she is the only woman in the entire division. But it helps that Shepard’s mentor and surrogate father is none other than police commissioner John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson), who raised Shepard after her father, himself a decorated cop and Mills’ former partner, went on a deranged killing spree that culminated in the murder of Shepard’s mother.

As if that weren’t enough convoluted backstory, no sooner has Shepard settled into her new job than it’s revealed she has a penchant for picking up unsavory men in seedy, after-hours bars and luring them back to her apartment for rough, violent sex. She also has a knack for drinking herself into an alcoholic stupor, blacking out and waking up hours later, unable to remember where she’s been or what she’s done. In a page right out of the old Jane Fonda starrer “The Morning After,” those habits make for a bad combination when one of Shepard’s one-night-stands washes up dead in the San Francisco Bay, with others quickly following suit.

Yet, despite her connection to the victims and her own admissions to a police psychiatrist (David Strathairn) that she fears she may have “inherited” her father’s psychotic temperament, Shepard is left (with Delmarco) in charge of the investigation into the murders. It’s the sort of humorous, if highly implausible, touch of which the frustratingly literal-minded “Twisted” could actually use more. There’s the hint of an idea here, about how the seductive Shepard is such a turn-on for all the men around her that they’d never imagine her to be capable of murder. (Pic even has some fun with the notion of the killer constantly being referred to as a “guy.”) And for a brief moment, it seems Kaufman may be trying to transform “Twisted” from a rote genre piece into a comically libidinous whodunit on the order of Carl Franklin’s recent “Out of Time.”

Alas, no such luck. The screenplay for “Twisted,” credited to Sarah Thorp, resembles what one might come up with after plowing through a how-to thriller screenwriting manual from the ’80s and early ’90s, or fast-forwarding through the entire Eszterhas back catalog. But even Eszterhas usually souped up his scenarios with an exciting chase scene or two, or some authentic eroticism. In “Twisted,” we’re left with a talky, inert game of wait-and-see as viewers impatiently await the contrived explanation the filmmakers come up with to identify the “real” culprit from the cascade of red herrings.

While Judd clearly relishes being cast as something other than a goody-two-shoes and Jackson takes some pleasure in playing up his character’s neo-conservative affectations, the other performers seem resigned to the fact that they are merely interchangeable pieces in pic’s obvious, jigsaw-puzzle design.

No one seems less enthusiastic here than Kaufman, and “Twisted” is emblematic of the difficulties under which a director of his estimable abilities is able to continue working in Hollywood. Though Kaufman can do outstanding work on ambitious projects (“The Right Stuff,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), financing those has become increasingly problematic, and in his for-hire work (his last pic before “Quills” was the Michael Crichton adaptation “Rising Sun”) he can sometimes barely disguise his disdain for the material.

Pic is highlighted by superb location work in and around the streets of San Francisco and a generally pro tech package, though d.p. Peter Deming occasionally comes close to turning Judd into a blurry haze of soft-lighting effects. Composer Mark Isham contributes another of his predictably jazzy, trumpet-solo-intensive scores.

Twisted

Production

A Paramount release presented in association with Intertainment of a Kopelson Entertainment production. Produced by Arnold Kopelson, Anne Kopelson, Barry Baeres, Linne Radmin. Executive producers, Stephen Brown, Robyn Meisinger, Michael Flynn. Co-producers, Peter Kaufman, Sherryl Clark. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Screenplay, Sarah Thorp.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Peter Deming; editor, Peter Boyle; music, Mark Isham; production designer, Dennis Washington; art director, Thomas T. Taylor; set designers, Michael Scott Cobb, Douglas Piere; set decorator, Barbara Munch; costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Nelson Stoll; supervising sound editor, Frank Eulner; visual effects supervisors, Mark Casey, Eric Brevig; visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; associate producer, Cherylanne Martin; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; second unit director, Robert F. Brown; second unit camera, Louis C. Weinert; casting, Denise Chamian. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, Feb. 20, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Jessica Shepard - Ashley Judd John Mills - Samuel L. Jackson Mike Delmarco - Andy Garcia Dr. Melvin Frank - David Strathairn Lieutenant Tong - Russell Wong Lisa - Camryn Manheim Jimmy Schmidt - Mark Pellegrino Dale Becker - Titus Welliver Ray Porter - D.W. Moffett Wilson Jefferson - Richard T. Jones Edmund Culter - Leland Orser

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