-By Chris Grunden

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It's hard to imagine a better combination of qualities in a police detective than those possessed by Dr. Alex Cross, who's not just a gumshoe but also a forensic psychologist and best-selling crime author. As played superlatively by Morgan Freeman, who as usual rises far above his material, Cross approaches the criminal mind in a quietly cerebral and deliberate manner, but he also exudes steely determination and is damn good with a gun. When his niece is kidnapped by a serial killer who's preying on young women in the college town of Durham, North Carolina, he leaves his Washington, D.C. base and heads south, where the local good-old-boy police (Cary Elwes, Alex McArthur) appreciate his involvement in the case about as much as a pair of buzzards would welcome another's desire to share their fresh kill. As it turns out, Cross' icy reception points to the story's glaring weakness: For once, the person who looks too obviously like the killer actually turns out to be the killer-so much for a surprise ending.

Kiss the Girls is cut from the same well-worn cloth as its serial-killer-film brethren Seven, Copycat and The Silence of the Lambs, and it does deliver the genre's standard requirements: a syringe-wielding, mask-wearing psycho who calls himself 'Casanova,' and a strongwilled heroine who ultimately outwits her attacker. In this regard, Ashley Judd can stand alongside Jodie Foster and Sigourney Weaver, as she's quite impressive as Kate McTiernan, a fresh-faced, intelligent hospital intern with a penchant for kickboxing who's kidnapped and taken to a underground cell where a harem of other girls are being held hostage. Casanova certainly has bizarre tastes, as evidenced by a scene where Cross' niece, a classical violinist, is forced to play her instrument while bound in a chair with her fellow captives sitting in a semi-circle in a candlelit dungeon. McTiernan's escape from her tormentor is a pulse-pounding highlight, as she frantically struggles to reach daylight while navigating through an impossibly dense Carolina forest. The film picks up steam when, following her escape, McTiernan and Cross head to California, where a second serial killer known as 'The Gentleman Caller' (a spooky Tony Goldwyn) is apparently in cahoots with their Carolina quarry. Once we're back in North Carolina, Fleder and screenwriter David Klass have already used their best material.

Aaron Schneider's dark-hued, earth-toned cinematography captures the eerieness of the verdant Carolina locations and, by contrast, production designer Nelson Coates gives Casanova's underground lair a chamber-of-horrors look aptly described by one character as 'subterranean gothic.'' Notable but not particularly welcome is the sound design, which accentuates every suspenseful moment with ear-piercing digital dynamics. Kiss the Girls is director Gary Fleder's follow-up to his low-key debut feature, Things to Do in Denver While You're Dead, which starred Andy Garcia and sank without a trace. Fleder's first big-budget film will certainly draw a wider audience (the film is based on James Patterson's best-selling novel), but beyond particularly fine performances from Freeman and Judd, Kiss the Girls is a perfect example of a film that doesn't do anything particularly badly but sorely suffers from a lack of uniqueness.

--Chris Grunden

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