A serial killer on the prowl. A jaded cop with an ugly past — a cop who may, in fact, be the killer. A beautiful and mysterious blond who loves the cop at her peril. These are the key elements in Jennifer Eight and Traces of Red, two flamboyant mystery thrillers that work overtime to be dangerous and exciting. That neither one totally hits its mark says much about the exhausted state of this particular genre. After all, it isn’t easy to seduce an audience that, in countless recent thrillers, has been tricked, shocked, and faked out past caring.
Jennifer Eight, starring Andy Garcia as an obsessed detective and Uma Thurman as the young blind woman who may be the killer’s next victim, is the more ambitious of the two. It swathes some fairly conventional goose-the-audience devices in arty photography, a willfully off-kilter plot, and an atmosphere of mournful Hitchcockian romanticism. Garcia plays John Berlin, a burnt-out Los Angeles cop who attempts to escape his past by joining the police force of a small Northern California town. In the opening scene, he and his partner (Lance Henriksen) discover a corpse in a garbage dump. Berlin turns up evidence that this may be the latest in a series of murders of young blind women. Before long, his investigation becomes a dark personal crusade. He gets way too involved, becoming the self-appointed protector of a possible witness, the naive, gorgeous Helena (Thurman).
Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the gifted Englishman who directed the scabrously witty end-of-the-’60s tragicomedy Withnail & I, Jennifer Eight has style and atmosphere to spare. Blindness is the movie’s running gimmick/ metaphor: Robinson stages several stalker scenes in blackened hallways, the movements of the characters illuminated by mere flashlights. Clearly, he’s a talented filmmaker. The trouble with Jennifer Eight is that nothing in it makes very much sense. Robinson never really figures out how to work Helena into the story. Mostly, she’s just there, hanging around the house, a wayward romantic icon. And Berlin’s investigation is too haphazard to generate much suspense. By the time John Malkovich, in a scrumptious bit of overacting, shows up as an FBI interrogator, the movie seems like a collection of dazzling pieces you wish had been assembled in a more convincing manner.
If Jennifer Eight tries to dress up thriller cliches as cinematic haute couture, Traces of Red, a kinky update of a ’40s-style whodunit, dives into the clichés with shameless gusto. It’s set in Palm Beach, where James Belushi, as a womanizing cop, is on the trail of a killer who keeps sending him grisly notes.
Traces of Red is inertly paced, with the sort of solemnly trashy that’s-the-kind-of-dame-she-was dialogue that went out decades ago. The performances range from adequate (Belushi, a little more alive than usual in this sleazebag role) to middling (Tony Goldwyn, who gawks like a koala bear as Belushi’s straight-arrow partner) to preposterous (Lorraine Bracco, who plays a femme fatale with such zombie hauteur that she seems to be turning into the new Sean Young). What the movie has going for it is a series of twists and reversals that, in their ludicrous way, will leave the audience second-, third-, and fourth-guessing itself as to the killer’s identity. This is low-cal junk food, at best, but you’ll hang in there to the last greasy bite. Jennifer Eight: C+ Traces of Red: B-