A movie with a crisis.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 15 Jun 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Identity belongs to that frustrating band of movies that somehow manage to completely miss their own point. Blessed with a central premise that is potentially tense, psychologically stirring stuff, it fumbles the ball immediately and wastes 90 minutes running the length of the field with nothing to actually touch down. Writer Michael Cooney, whose previous credentials basically comprise ultra-low budget turd-fests Jack Frost and Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman (I shit you not), has somehow managed to pull a serious amount of wool over someone's eyes at Sony Pictures, and fair play to him for pocketing the dough and legging it.

One extremely rainy night in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada, a group of people from wildly varying backgrounds find themselves stranded at a ramshackle motel with no means of escape until the raging storm abates. There's Ed (John Cusack); an ex-cop who now works as a personal driver for fallen Hollywood star Caroline Suzanne (a barely recognisable Rebecca De Mornay in a role with which she must feel extremely familiar), Paris (Amanda Peet); a washed out prostitute with motor difficulties, George and Alice York, and their son Timmy (John C. McGinley, Leila Kenzle and Bret Loehr respectively); a family travelling in their car when an accident renders Alice injured and in a critical condition, and Lou and Ginny (William Lee Scott and Clea DuVall); a young couple married in Vegas just a few hours previously.

If that sounds like an eclectic mixture then dig this, daddy-o. Just as introductions are being made, along rolls Officer Rhodes (Ray Liotta) and his death row convict passenger Robert Maine (Jake Busey). Due for execution the following day, Maine was being transported to his final destination by Rhodes when the storm cut their radio (what is it with storms and radios in movies?) and forced them to seek shelter at the motel. Having naively chained Maine to the nearest available toilet (hardly the most immovable object onto which to fasten a condemned man), attention switches to the injured Alice York who is in an increasingly perilous condition. A bit of impromptu stitching by Ed keeps her from popping off immediately, but with no sign of the storm subsiding it becomes clear the gang are going to have to wait until sunrise before they can summon help (quite why the sun rising will help if the storm is still raging is beyond me).

No sooner has motel proprietor Larry (John Hawkes) handed out everyone their room keys, however, than Ed discovers Caroline Suzanne's head rolling around in a tumble dryer, and Rhodes realises the folly of leaving a prisoner in the charge of Armitage Shanks. It seems Maine has escaped and is now once more living the free life of a serial killer. It will come as no surprise, I'm sure, to learn that the guests start dropping one by one, but after the first couple of grizzly homicides, Maine himself is found dead. Who is the real murderer in their midst? Who can be trusted and who cannot? Will anyone escape the motel alive? Can the audience honestly be expected to care?

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There's the odd thing right here and there with Identity. The set-up itself is promising, and the atmosphere generated by the persistent heavy rain is admirable enough. The performances, whilst not being particularly standout are serviceable for this kind of thing. Cusack rightfully looks like he's in this one for the money, and one can only imagine his presence is some sort of self-imposed purgatory to keep his profile up to date. McGinley is as dependable as ever, Liotta finds another role where his 'thinly-veiled evil' face seems marvelously well suited (imagine him scowling, at you, in the dark, in the rain...aaaargh!), Hawkes provides a few good laughs ("sorry about the thread, there wasn't any beige"), and Amanda Peet is, well, Amanda bloody Peet unfortunately.

Half an hour in things are shaping up relatively nicely, and you're hoping that director James Mangold is going to start turning on the style. So far it's been passable, but there's a hint of better things to come. The 'whodunnit?' element is building competently towards some kind of twist or revelation, and when Busey buys it you're sure you're in for a real treat. But it never happens. Despite being handed a wealth of potential dynamite, Mangold meanders increasingly helplessly through the last two thirds of the movie, seemingly unable to shoot a fish in a barrel, and the excitement curve makes a steady mathematical descent right until the very end when it should instead be going through the roof. His direction becomes increasingly flat, pointless and ultimately the most dangerous thing in the movie.

As much blame as can be leveled at Mangold can, however, be rightfully burdened upon writer Cooney. The poor man no doubt realised midway through his process that he was sitting on a potentially intriguing script, and in all the excitement he hurtled through to the denouement, realising only too late that he had no logical way of completing his story. Instead of rethinking his strategy or re-drafting the script to accommodate a more probable and/or realistic explanation, one gets the distinct feeling Cooney lapsed back into B-movie sensibilities. He utterly annihilates the movie pretty much single-handedly by pulling the most ridiculous "twist" at the end. No doubt he thought he'd cunningly rescued a stranded script by implementing a final turn that would leave we the audience gasping in shock, but unfortunately for him he seems to have underestimated just how jaded the audience are by this point and just how lame and cheap his "shock" tactic is.

Not so much bordering on as taking up residency in laughable, this u-turn tactic means anyone seeing the film through to the end may well feel understandably patronised by the contempt shown by Cooney for their intelligence. Not to ruin it for anyone, but sticking a fat psychotic man with multiple personality disorder and eyes shakier than a Thunderbird's in front of the camera does not give one carte blanch to redefine the boundaries of believability. Shame on Cooney for bitching out after realising his own mistake, and shame on Sony Pictures quality control department (if indeed they have one) for not insisting on major surgery for something that ends up feeling like the severely crippled first draft of a potentially decent script.

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I felt more than a little robbed by Identity, and I'm guessing most people will share that sentiment. What begins as a promising thriller degenerates into a senseless fairy tale when it really should have just stuck to it's guns; it's easy to imagine the cast squirming in their seats at the premiere, their self-esteem whored out for the sake of the worst kind of patronising tosh. Identity's biggest crime is that patronising tosh though it may be, a little effort from just about anybody involved, especially Cooney, may well have turned it into something much more stimulating.

We live in an age, my friends, where children around the world are starving to death for the want of the kind of money someone somewhere signed a cheque for so that this bum-nugget could be made. Cooney and Mangold see fit to rub this fact in the dirty, dying, disease-riddled faces of the poor little blighters by implementing the trashiest, most throwaway ending in recent memory. Vanilla Sky may have pulled a similar stunt, but at least the rest of the movie was surreal enough for it not to feel out of place. Here it sticks out like a sore thumb on a movie that, until the last fifteen minutes, may well be trashy, but not insulting. So demoralised am I that the more I think about it the less I feel inclined to give it a fair mark, so I'll stop there. To rectify my depression, I shall immediately watch some good John Cusack movies and review them for you instead. In the meantime, Sony are laughing at you. Do not give them your money.

Craig Disko has awarded Identity 2 out of 5 Evil Liotta Faces.

James Mangold
Cast list:
John Cusack (Ed)
Ray Liotta (Officer Rhodes)
Amanda Peet (Paris)