“Judas Kiss” is a wannabe film noir-cum-policier that’s badly in need of a rewrite by James Ellroy. First-time writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez gets the action and characters onscreen in OK fashion, if with no special style, but most of the words coming out of the actors’ mouths wouldn’t hard-boil an egg. Despite an interesting cast, pic looks set to get the kiss-off theatrically in mature territories, with direct-to-homevid more likely in some.
Opening reels promise a fast-paced, wisecracking ride that doesn’t transpire in practice. A team of four breaks into an upscale New Orleans apartment block and kidnaps Dyson (Greg Wise), head of the powerful computer conglom Dyscape. At the last moment, however, another tenant (Beverly Penberthy) wanders along the corridor and is shot by the leader of the group, Coco (Carla Gugino).
Voiceover flashbacks by Coco limn her past, initially running sex scams in hotel rooms with the help of her lover, Junior (Aussie actor Simon Baker-Denny, from “L.A. Confidential”), and then planning to enter the big time with the current $4 million ransom. To that end, she recruited tech expert Lizard (Gil Bellows) and Ruben (German superstar Til Schweiger), a hunk of muscle who passes the time playing Russian roulette by himself.
When the group hears on TV that the woman Coco shot was the wife of powerful Sen. Hornbeck (Hal Holbrook at his oiliest), the kidnapping takes on serious extra dimensions. Hornbeck, who has plenty to hide, puts his own team on the case; also trawling for clues are two disheveled representatives of law and order — fast-talking FBI agent Hawkins (Emma Thompson) and alcoholic police detective Friedman (Alan Rickman).
As the kidnappers lead the cops and the man with the payoff money a merry trail across town, details gradually emerge that the killing of Hornbeck’s wife may not have been such a coincidence. And loyalties within Coco’s team are not what they seem.
Caracas-born Gutierrez, who was working as a Columbia TV stagehand until recently, certainly knows how to construct the requisite number of twists within a crime format. It’s on the dialogue in between that he still needs to spend nights, especially for a picture in which the characters spend a large amount of time standing around talking.
In a modern version of the genre’s tough vamp role, Gugino certainly fulfills its physical requirements but doesn’t yet have the screen smarts to overcome Gutierrez’s average dialogue and direction. Much the same could be said for the other characters, with Baker-Denny, Bellows and Schweiger scoring individual moments as members of her team but not emerging with sizable screen presence.
If one can get over the barrier of Brits Thompson and Rickman adopting sunbaked Southern accents (the for-mer much more successfully), there’s some dry humor to be enjoyed in their perfs, especially Thompson’s off-hand FBI agent, whose professional acumen is thankfully sharper than her taste in clothing. Her role, however, is relatively small, and peripheral to the main action; Rickman’s is more sizable but, again, not closely aligned with the plot’s main trajectory.
On a technical side, things are pro but come up short on the extra visual style needed to bring off this kind of genre entry. Score by Christopher Young, usually a master of darkly driven atmospherics, is surprisingly bland.