Ashley Judd seems to go out of her way to find hole-riddled women-in-peril B-thrillers anymore. It's as if she's doing everything in her power not to be taken seriously as an actress.
After a moving, understated debut in 1993's "Ruby in Paradise," the actress seemed on her way toward award-worthy respect with memorable, compelling small-role performances in "Smoke," "Heat," and "A Time to Kill." Then she threw it all away to become queen of the trashy victim-empowerment genre with "Kiss the Girls," "Double Jeopardy," and "High Crimes," all of which seem promising at first but become tangled beyond salvation in their own ridiculous plot twists.
And thus we come to the appropriately titled murder mystery "Twisted," in which the twists are not only ridiculous, but also so poorly conceived that "the real killer" might as well be walking around in blood-soaked shoes.
Judd plays a hard-drinking, procedure-breaking San Francisco cop with some daddy issues that lead her to have sexually aggressive one-night stands with guys she picks up in bars. (Two -- count 'em! -- two clichés in one!) Freshly promoted to homicide, in her first case the victim is one of the men she slept with, and he was beaten to death with a martial arts weapon she's known to carry -- during a blackout she had after a night of boozing. Ditto two more guys who soon turn up dead with a serial killer's signature cigarette burns in the backs of their hands.
But Detective Judd isn't pulled off the case, in part because the cops don't want to tip off any suspects to the fact that they sense a pattern (as if that wasn't the killer's intent to begin with) and in part on the orders of the police commissioner (a sleepwalking Samuel L. Jackson). He's her mentor and knows she's a good cop because he raised her after her father (and his beat partner) went on a murder-suicide spree himself in the 1970s.
The facts of the father's case are transparently shaky, but that's the least of this movie's problems. The suspense in "Twisted" is marred by barely cursory attempts to question Judd's sanity (too much whodunit, not enough did-she-do-it) and by the telegraphed nature of other red-herring killers (a slack-jawed stalker ex-boyfriend, for example).
The story stumbles over the loose ends of plot points (bloodstain DNA tests, a captured serial killer who messes with Judd's head like a two-bit Hannibal Lecter) that vanish when they're no longer needed. The investigation is vague, over-simplified and often imprecise (if nothing else, the DNA test should have at least revealed the sex and race of the killer). The writing is cut-rate, with most characters habitually speaking in self-satisfied smart remarks.
And Judd gives an uneven performance in which her supposedly innate analytical instincts are never in evidence beyond token establishing scenes, and her toughness and emotional troubles seem more like costumes than character traits. In the laughably hackneyed opening scene, she overpowers a suspect holding a knife to her throat, handcuffs him, then sneers ironically and says, "Oh yeah, one more thing" before karate-kicking the guy in the face.
Director Philip Kaufman (who must have needed a paycheck between quality projects like "Quills," "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") successfully exploits Judd's feminine vulnerability for all its B-movie potential and gives the unmistakable nooks and crannies of San Francisco (where he lives) a good workout -- no Canadian location-faking here.
But beyond giving "Twisted" a passable atmosphere of imminent danger, there's just not much he can do to infuse the movie with plausibility or even patch the cracks in its rudimentary psychological facade.