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Lip Service 

A killer stealing identities runs afoul of Angelina Jolie in “Taking Lives.”

Director D.J. Caruso (“The Salton Sea”) is magpie in chief, scavenging through the archive of past thrillers. Spotting such borrowings is about the only consistent pleasure the film affords: There’s the boiling tea kettle from “Fatal Attraction.” There’s the creepy killer’s lair from “Silence of the Lambs.” There’s the against-the-traffic chase from “To Live and Die in L.A.” When these moments pop up, it’s like bumping into an old friend in a dreary foreign city. All it does is remind you that you’d rather be somewhere else. It’s a feeling that seems to be shared by much of the cast, especially the wonderful Gena Rowlands, who almost pulls off the heroic task of concealing her disdain for the whole enterprise.

At the center of the action is crack FBI profiler Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie). Her old buddy from Quantico is now a bigwig homicide detective in Montreal, and he calls her in to help him out of a jam. For almost two decades, young men of similar build have been surfacing across the frozen land with amputated hands and smashed-in skulls. He thinks there might be a pattern here. His underlings are out of ideas, but nonetheless are understandably irked when their boss puts agent Scott on the case.

Jolie quickly wows our befuddled neighbors to the north, coining a name for the killer’s modus operandi: “life jacking.” Yet life jacking is old hat, it would appear, to the wizards at the Hoover Building. Her unconventional techniques go far beyond the plodding methods taught in the backwoods Quebecois police academies. By lying in the makeshift grave of the most recently discovered victim, she can put herself into intuitive contact with the killer. Pondering her quarry’s preference for strangling his prey, she intones, “It’s tactile. It’s immediate. It’s what turns him on.”

What’s more, she’s classy. At one point she manages to emit something that sounds very much like French from her remarkably full lips. When she interviews Gena Rowlands, who plays the mother of the life-jacking psycho, she is told of his first boyhood trip to see a production of “The Magic Flute.” “Of course,” a wistfully smiling Jolie responds, trying hard to act like a woman fondly recalling her own first enchanted encounter with Mozart. We don’t believe it for a second.

The big break in the case arrives in the form of a witness, played by Ethan Hawke, whose comeback movie this is notionally supposed to be. An art dealer with a thriving gallery, he seems to be next in line for one of the killer’s nefarious acts of bio-kleptia and obligingly agrees to serve as the bait, partly because of Jolie’s abundant physical charms. Agent Scott is intrigued as well, perhaps hoping that this emissary from the world of culture will restore her to the Mozart-drenched rapture of her youth. Kiefer Sutherland emerges from the shadows as the prime suspect, and in a dizzying flood of hokum everything appears to be resolved.

You may notice, however, that you’re not even halfway through your popcorn. Only an hour has passed, and at this point seasoned moviegoers may begin to suspect that all is not as it seems to be. When, at length, the promised climax does arrive, it will leave you gasping in astonishment, provided that you have never been to the movies before.

In spite of all its deficiencies, in some respects “Taking Lives” is a meticulously crafted film, expertly shot by Amir M. Mokri (“Pacific Heights,” “The Joy Luck Club”), and scored by Philip Glass. But the occasional sparks can’t infuse life into this cobbled-together groaner. ** S

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