Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003

Ten strangers come together at an old run-down roadside hotel. Mysteriously, one by one, they start dropping like flies. Who is the culprit, and who will survive? This could very well be the plot of the latest Jason Voorhees slasher epic, but, lucky you, it's not. Instead it's a twisty cool psychological thriller with shades of Agatha Christie and Stephen King at his least gory.

Identity is a spooky, edge of your seat thriller that manages not to sacrifice story for scares. John Cusack stars as a down on his luck limo driver who has a literal run-in with a family stuck on the side of the road on what is possibly the rainiest night of the year. He and the petulant has-been starlet he is driving end up having to hole up at a middle of nowhere hotel along with the family and a host of other suspicious characters. Included in this motley crew are Ray Liotta and Jake Busey, a cop and the multiple murderer he is transporting. Though there is a hastily convened hearing in progress to review the killer's death sentence - a sentence to be carried out in the morning, by the way, they too are stuck. No phones, no radios, just the rain. When the killer gets loose and people start dying, you start to feel as though the movie peaked early, but just wait. Mind-blowing is a good way to describe the twist to come.

A movie that could have easily veered off into contrivance and cheap thrills stays the course on the strength of it's plot and a great cast. Cusack, who could star in a Snoop Dogg video and wouldn't lose an ounce of class, is at the top of his game. We've seen him do deeper stuff, but for mainstream fare, Identity lets him shine. You just want to trust him, and so you do. He is the anchor. However, the show is far from a one man affair. Along with Cusack are Amanda Peet, your requisite hooker with a heart of gold, John C. McGinley as a timid father about to crack, and relative unknown John Hawkes as an extremely nervous hotel clerk. Casting Jake Busey as a psychotic criminal almost seems too easy, but if it works it works. And Ray Liotta, a man who can cheese up a thriller quicker than just about anyone, keeps it low key. He kind of simmers, but keeps the tension on.

Identity is nice because, while it's got a little gore, it doesn't succeed through special effects or fake blood. It really grabs your attention and doesn't let go. Though most of the characters are a little hastily drawn, we care what happens to them, which always helps in a scary movie. Most of all, though, you just want to know what the heck is going on and you're desperate for someone to say. Someone's gotta know more than they're telling. Don't worry, they'll keep you guessing.

This is not to say that Identity is by any means a perfect movie. It has more than it's share of plot holes, and there are a few instances of the filmmakers lack of trust for the audience. I hate it when the director assumes I can't understand what happened and that he has to show me the whole thing in replay. I know the world likes to think that Americans are oafish louts, but c'mon. We don't need everything spelled out for us. Most of the movie, however, is smart and edgy, and makes the few problems easy to overlook.

Actually, the main problem Identity faces is one suggested by the title itself. Not many people know who this movie is. Very little press and a limited ad campaign could very well sink this movie, and it's too bad. The movie is fun, it's scary, and it's intelligent. The Others, a movie in a similar vein, though with a different feel, benefitted from a strong word of mouth campaign. It also benefitted from just the right release date. Identity will have no such luck. Next weekend, X-Men 2 will swallow all the thrill-seekers the market can bear, and two weeks later The Matrix Reloaded will grab em again. Identity has only a small window of opportunity to root itself, and the studio is giving it no help that I can see. The theater where I went to see it didn't even have a poster up, though the ad for Bulletproof Monk was proudly displayed.

Don't let your lack of prior knowledge stop you from going to this movie. It's a lot of fun, and will provide great conversation afterward. If you don't recognize the name, check it out anyway . After all, it's always the one you least suspect. Grade: A-

Identity is rated R for violence and language, though nothing too shocking. If they saw The Ring, they can certainly handle this.

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