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WHERE EVIL LURKS
IN A DUNGEON, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

"KISS THE Girls" is a well-crafted and well-executed thriller with a black, black heart. Watching it is like admiring the oaken beauty of the electric chair -- because it's so polished, you're tricked into complicity with the horrors it delivers.

This happens at the movies sometimes. In a western we find ourselves pulling for the bully in the black hat. In a romance we're rooting for the plain-vanilla nice guy, instead of the bad-boy-made-good who always wins out. In "Batman" I wanted the Joker to prevail.

In "Kiss the Girls," though, it's a more disturbing phenomenon. We're invited into a sort of dungeon, see the beautiful young women imprisoned there, and squirm along as the resident psychopath brutalizes them physically and mentally. It's torture of the most repugnant sort, but some indefinable element -- the mask? the Gothic design scheme? the extreme tightness of the camera shots? -- invites the viewer to feel the madman's control-freak power trip to what I think is an unhealthy degree. It's one thing to look evil in the face; it's another to look through evil's eyes, and that's what happens here.

Ah yes, the story. In verdant North Carolina, exceptional young women -- both beautiful and extraordinarily talented in some way -- have been disappearing off a college campus. A couple have been found dead, tied naked to a tree off in the forest, but most are still unaccounted for. Just two people can solve the mystery: Dr. Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), a D.C. detective and forensic psychologist; and Kate Mctiernan (Ashley Judd), a kick-boxing doctor (!) who is briefly kidnapped.

What she saw during her imprisonment is shocking: All the missing women are shackled in a dripping, candlelit stone dungeon, and forced to submit to their captor's whims. And one of them is Dr. Cross' niece, a gifted violinist.

The movie, based on an immensely best-selling novel, is a police procedural -- it follows the detective as he ferrets out his man by applying superior logic. But for all that, the police make a lot of elementary procedural mistakes, and these lead to some panting chases through the forest that seem rather unnecessary. In their quest to tantalize us with near-misses, the screenwriters instead distract us with nonsense. It's a flaw, but not a disabling one.

In the lead roles, though, Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd make themselves terrific. Judd radiates spirited strength in the unlikely role of the kick-boxing doc. And you can't help but be drawn to Freeman, who's playing a variant on the somber cop he portrayed in "Seven." It would be good to see him, say, on Letterman: He's the kind of guy who'd stare balefully until Dave quits palavering, then deliver a perfectly pithy, trenchant sentence. You get the sense that there's always a lot going on behind that calculating mug.

MOVIE
Kiss the Girls
Rating: *** 1/2
A detective ferrets out a psychopath who's kidnapping and imprisoning exceptional young women -- including the detective's niece. Starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Directed by Gary Fleder. Rated R, opens today at area movie theaters.

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