'Twisted'

In the junky woman-in-peril thriller "Twisted," Ashley Judd enters laughing, but not for long. Butched-out with cropped hair, leather jacket and a bloodstream gurgling with booze, Judd's Jessica Shepard has just been bumped from beat cop to homicide detective when the story opens. The tough-talking, rough-loving rookie inspector takes to her new gig with bravura, only to quaver when she discovers that her first homicide case involves a recent sexual conquest. When a second fling ends up filling up a chalk outline, the inspector knows she has a problem and, needless to say, she isn't the only one.

What's a girl to do? Well, if your mentor is the police commissioner (Samuel L. Jackson on cruise control), who raised you from childhood after your parents' enigmatically violent death, the thing to do, apparently, is to keep on keeping on. Jessica continues to punch the clock and hit the mattress even as her paramours leave this mortal coil adorned with cigarette burns and faces that look like ground chuck. Fending off suspicion, she fields doubts from the police shrink (David Strathairn) and trades barbs and hot looks with her new partner (Andy Garcia); later, she brings her long lonely nights to a close by chugging Cabernet Sauvignon, whereupon she wakes to another day shrouded in death and erotic menace.

As the bodies mount, so do the clichés, and it isn't long before both are overtaken by the sort of unintentional laughter that will make this a fine video rental not far into the future. Written by newcomer Sarah Thorp and directed with anonymous efficiency by a slumming Philip Kaufman, "Twisted" is puerile nonsense of a familiar type. In the 1996 Paramount thriller "Kiss the Girls," Judd played a woman who hunts a serial killer from whom she's escaped; three years later, in another of the studio's releases, "Double Jeopardy," the actress played a wife nearly undone by her murderous husband. Hinged on sexual panic and violence, these new gothic stories involve the triumph of women over predatory men and have, at least at Paramount, become something of a house sub-genre.

Woman-in-peril romances are nothing new. Books, plays and films as distinct in ambition and pedigree as "Jane Eyre," "Gaslight" and "The Stepfather" are similarly infused with paranoia, sexual dread and violence, and romantic-suspense is now an established literary sub-genre. (A few years ago, Publishers Weekly located a variant on the neo-gothic it dubbed "grisly romances.") What makes movies like "Kiss the Girls" and "Twisted" worthy of note if not actually noteworthy is how sex and violence blur together. Jessica's sexual encounters carry a frisson of brutality, and several of her conquests come across as punch-drunk in her presence, unhinged almost to the point of obsession. Whether or not the detective is a black widow or an innocent dupe, there's no question she's guilty of driving men crazy.

What the director of such tony adaptations as "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is doing directing a woman-in-peril movie is anyone's guess. Likely it has something to do with the fact that Kaufman made his last feature, "Quills," about the final days and nights of the Marquis de Sade, four years ago. I hope he got paid plenty for this film. "Twisted" is rubbish, but it looks good enough, moves fast enough and does improve as it progresses, principally because its plot disintegrates to the point of outright comedy (the windup prominently features a sea lion). In the 1970s, Kaufman directed an excellent remake of the pulp classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," about an alien invasion. No one escapes the pod people in that film, but here's hoping he does.

'Twisted'MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and sexualityTimes guidelines: Bloody violence, insinuation of rough sexAshley Judd...Jessica ShepardSamuel L. Jackson...John MillsAndy Garcia...Mike DelmarcoDavid Strathairn...Dr. Melvin FrankRussell Wong...Lt. Tong Paramount Pictures presents, in association with Intertainment, a Kopelson Entertainment production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Philip Kaufman. Writer Sarah Thorp. Producers Arnold Kopelson, Anne Kopelson, Barry Baeres, Linne Radmin. Director of photography Peter Deming. Production designer Dennis Washington. Editor Peter Boyle. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick. Composer Mark Isham. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In general release.

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