"Angel Eyes" is not the cheaply manipulative woman-in-peril thriller it appears to be in its TV ads and trailers. But one can hardly blame Warner Bros. for marketing the film that way because it would be hard to sell, in 30-second spots on MTV, an emotionally layered, grown-up drama about two battered souls finding a blossoming but tentative solace together.
A fulfilling surprise from start to finish, the film stars Jennifer Lopez in her best performance since "Out of Sight" as Sharon Pogue, a tough Chicago beat cop who keeps a man alive until paramedics arrive after a horrible traffic accident in the opening scene.
All in the line of duty, she's forgotten about it a year later when a quiet, eerie stranger saves her life by coming out of the blue to tackle a street thug who ambushed her during a foot chase and was about to blow her head off.
"Why would you do that?" she asks, relieved but stunned.
"I guess we were supposed to meet," he replies with an unsettlingly wan smile.
As you've most certainly guessed, the stranger (Jim Caviezel, "Frequency") is the man from the accident, but she doesn't know that, and while he recognizes her, it seems even he does not know from where. He just knows he's inexorably drawn to her from the moment he spies her at a table full of cops in a coffee shop and begins following her on her beat.
Even at this early stage of the story, Lopez and Caviezel have conveyed a realistic complexity in their characters through their behavior. Clearly he's still suffering from shock induced by the traumatic accident -- the specific, tormenting cause of which will be revealed in captivating layers as the story unfolds. She, on the other hand, has been hardened by a tough childhood and, we discover, by the prolonged estrangement of her family ever since she arrested her own father for domestic abuse.
Against her better judgement, Sharon agrees to see her savior socially, even though he avoids telling her anything about himself except that his name is "Catch." The commercials get all their suspense from these scenes as director Luis Mandoki ("Message in a Bottle") lets a little danger hang in the air. Catch soon knows where she lives, where she jogs and even where she keeps her gun, when all she knows about him is that by night he sleeps on a futon in an empty tough-neighborhood flat and by day he wanders the streets lost in thought. Her patrol partner (an underutilized Terrence Howard, "The Best Man") even runs his name through the CPD computer system -- without consulting her -- and comes up with no record of the guy at all.
But as they become more involved emotionally and physically, a congenial Catch with a warm smile and a sense of humor begins to emerge from Caviezel's dark, somber face, as he struggles with the way he feels about Sharon while painfully starting to come to terms with the accident that destroyed his life.Mandoki has faith in the intelligence of his audience, allowing Catch's struggle to be unveiled slowly and indirectly while Caviezel dexterously balances the elusive, almost bipolar, intricacies of the character.
Lopez gets a lot to chew on as well, giving Sharon 100-percent credibility both in her short-tempered toughness and in her underlying tender vulnerability. One of the best scenes in the film comes when she explodes in ferocious anger and retrospective pain when dispatched to her own brother's house after he has hit his wife for the first time. (I also greatly admire Mandoki for not smoothing this -- or Sharon's estrangement from her father -- over with an unrealistic round of warm-and-fuzzy hugs and forgiveness in the last reel.)
There are a handful of missteps in "Angel Eyes" -- like the jarringly out-of-place use of happy little Lilith Faire ditties in an out-of-character date montage that comes awkwardly early in the relationship between Sharon and Catch. The movie would have been better if this sequence was cut completely in favor of, say, a simple candlelight dinner.
But except for a few such inopportune moments, Mandoki has a firm grip on the structure of the film's intricate, intimate puzzle. He knows, for instance, that the performances pack so much of an emotional whammy that getting graphic in flashbacks of the accident would be painfully gratuitous. He also has a wonderful sense of how to make room for small moments of revealing human authenticity.
"Angel Eyes" has a slightly too-slick veneer that comes from being a product of big-budget Hollywood. But I'm not about to knock it for that when it's so refreshing to see a movie of such intrinsic depth come out of a major studio -- especially during the first lap of the check- your- brain- at- the- door summer blockbuster race.