Slasher Surprise

'Identity' benefits from a talented ensemble cast but suffers from a stupid plot twist.

It's a little known fact, but absolutely true, that John Cusack is worshipped on several Polynesian islands as the God of Cute Boys. It all goes back to the early '80s when the Ring-wald peoples of Johnhughesland began sacrificing Stephen King novels while dancing to the hypnotic, tribal beats of Simple Mind in hopes of acquiring Cusack's distracted, and yet intense, sexiness.

Since then, no matter what he's in, Cusack has exerted a magic power that very few actors have. Sure, he always plays the same character, but seeing as that character is John Cusack, who can blame him?

So, of course, it was with hopes of seeing the Cusack appeal that I betook myself to Identity, which supports Cusack with an awesome cast. Among the featured players are John C. McGinley, whose frequently bare-chested performance on TV's Scrubs makes it the most appealing thing to happen on Thursday since the Last Supper; Ray Liotta, who would be a big star if that option wasn't immediately eliminated by appearing in such timeless classics as Operation Dumbo Drop and Muppets From Space; Clea DuVall, who looks like Claire Danes with a nose job and acts like Lauren Bacall with a heroin problem; Pruitt Taylor Vince, who's one of the finest actors of his generation and one of the least likely to get any role besides "fat guy," "crazy guy" and the star-making "fat crazy guy"; Alfred Molina, who stole acting fire from heaven and was punished by Zeus by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by B-movie directors; and Amanda Peet, who is at least good enough to bring her fabulous rack with her when she shows up in a film.

Further, Identity was directed by James Mangold, who made Heavy--one of the best and most-neglected movies of the '90s--which really made me wonder where Identity went so wrong. I've decided to lay the blame on screenwriter Michael Cooney, who deserves whatever he gets for having written Jack Frost and it's little-seen sequel, Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowmen.

The initial premise of Identity is promising, if a bit trite: Eleven people are trapped at a small motel during a flood. One of them (Jake Busey) is a murderer being transported by a seemingly incompetent corrections officer (Ray Liotta). Soon, the murderer escapes and the remaining people begin dying.

Cusack, as an ex-cop who has something to prove, or a shady past, or a dead partner, whatever, has to take charge. Now, it's hard not to love having John Cusack in charge. This is far better than having Scott Baio in charge, no matter what anyone says. Things thus proceed in standard slasher-flick style, with anyone stupid enough to leave the group and wander off on their own winding up creatively killed.

It's all well and good, and there's nothing wrong with a formula if it's done with style and panache. But meanwhile, another story is brewing which puts a twist on this boilerplate plot.

If you've seen Adaptation and listened closely as the Donald Kaufman character explained the plot of the movie he was writing, then you know the plot of Identity. I don't want to give it away, in spite of how poorly it works, but the fact that the story is ripped off from a joke about a bad idea for a film should be ample forewarning.

This other story, which rears its pimply and self-parodying head about two-thirds of the way through the film, makes it impossible to care about what happens to anyone at the motel. It's a real suspense-killer, and thrasher flicks thrive on a diet of suspense, decapitation and more suspense. Take away the suspense and you've just got a lot of headless corpses with nowhere to go.

This shouldn't completely dissuade you from seeing the film, as the slasher part is really well done and, if you can ignore the silly gimmick, stands up quite well on its own. The ensemble cast members interact with each other perfectly, and the end is classic slasher stuff, right up there with the fabulous final moments of such giants of the genre as Sleepaway Camp and, umm ... OK, maybe just Sleepaway Camp.

Anyway, it's well-shot, well-acted, the script is dead-on for the genre, and if it didn't try to escape its evil roots in the kill flicks of the '80s, it'd be a real winner, albeit in a small game without many good players. So should you go? Yes, if you're in the Cult of Cusack, or if you're mildly stoned and therefore more likely to buy the mid-movie twist. Otherwise, maybe you'd be better off renting Adaptation and seeing this same idea presented as some throw-away comic dialogue.

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