There have been a lot of adaptations (primarily for TV) of megaselling author James Patterson’s pulpy fictions, none particularly memorable, with the possible exception of hit 1997 thriller “Kiss the Girls.” But then, his books seldom aim for much more than disposable entertainment, so it’s apt enough that their screen versions should follow suit.
By that standard, there’s nothing really wrong with “The Postcard Killings,” which derives from a one-shot 2010 collaboration with Swedish crime novelist Liza Marklund that hit No. 1 on the U.S. bestseller list. But there’s nothing very right about the British-American co-production, either. Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan as an NYPD detective tracking his own daughter’s serial killers across Europe, this uninspired detour into impersonally commercial English-language terrain for Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (an Oscar winner for 2001’s “No Man’s Land”) should provide Patterson’s fans and undemanding miscellaneous viewers with an acceptably slick if not-particularly-suspenseful crime potboiler for home viewing. It’s getting a token stateside theatrical release on 10 screens March 13, simultaneous with on-demand launch.
A trite montage of jittery images suffices to convey the immediate grief, anger and binge drinking suffered by Morgan’s Jacob Kanon upon learning that his only child and her newlywed husband have been found slain in London. Worse still, they were discovered with their blood methodically drained, corpses “staged” in a grotesque pose with some limbs severed and others apparently “borrowed” from prior victims. Famke Janssen shows up just long enough as Jacob’s ex-wife Valerie to add more histrionics, including irrational blame-casting at him for placing the couple in danger by funding their European honeymoon.
Vowing to find the killer or killers himself, Jacob stays on, pestering the British investigators, then traveling to Munich, Stockholm and beyond as more young couples are victimized. Each crime is preceded by a cryptic postcard mailed to a journalist in the relevant city. In Sweden, he forms a sort of sleuthing partnership with one such scribe, expat American Dessie (Cush Jumbo), as well as the local police. They eventually suss that the murders are “staged” as references to various famous artworks, sending a message intended to be received by a wealthy albeit incarcerated art collector (Denis O’Hare) whom the equally dogged Valerie questions in the States.
Meanwhile, another fresh-faced young American pair (Naomi Battrick, Ruairi O’Connor) are backpacking the Continent, seemingly vulnerable to sketchy strangers like slightly older, heavily tattooed Pieter (Dylan Devonald-Smith), met on a train, and the girlfriend who later joins him (Sallie Harmsen as Nienke). But this dynamic is not what it appears, giving “The Postcard Killings” its only effective plot twist at about the 45-minute mark.
While Tanovic dwells somewhat gratuitously on the grisly end results of these serial slayings, the actual violence happens off-screen, and given the nature of its story, the film seems oddly disinterested in emphasizing action, fear or thrills. There isn’t even much in the way of atmospherics, with the bright, glossy, location-shot look more apt for tourism promotion than a tale whose twisted mayhem owes considerable conceptual debt to “Se7en.”
Instead, we mostly get the usually adept Morgan blustering around Europe as an Ugly American cliché. Jacob is belligerent and bullying toward local authorities he treats like amateurs, convinced only his own rule-breaking methods can catch the killers — which turns out to be true, natuarlly. (In a typical bit of pedestrian dialogue, he snarls at Swedish investigators, “You do what’s expected. I’ll do what’s needed.”) Once identified, those killers aren’t very credible, let alone frightening, and other figures in the competent supporting cast seldom get much character detailing. Second-billed Janssen is largely superfluous, relegated to a few scenes as a long-distance contact.
There just isn’t enough depth to the screenplay (oddly credited as being adapted from a prior, apparently unproduced screenplay) to ballast the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”-like tragic dysfunctional-family backstory that finally emerges. And the film’s ending on a note that practically promises a sequel seems presumptuous, to say the least. No one is likely to be demanding any followup, though Patterson and Marklund’s source material might be perfectly serviceable to launch a standard-issue TV detective drama series.