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MOVIE REVIEW

Judd makes 'Twisted' straight-out bad-movie fun

Just because film critics are supposed to be dispassionate, don't think we can't get movie crushes like everyone else. I'll never forget the liberating shock I experienced when a beloved college film professor, an august and intimidating mentor, admitted to his abiding jones for the oeuvre of Angie Dickinson. This has nothing to do with acting skill and everything to do with the allure that hits one's personal fan-boy sweet spot.

In that spirit, allow me to come out of the closet and confess that I would happily pay cash money to watch Ashley Judd read hog reports. Which, coincidentally, is a reasonable description of "Twisted," the new thriller opening today at theaters near you.

"Twisted" is eerily similar in its story line to "In the Cut," the much pasted Meg Ryan sex-and-death thriller that came out last year. Only it's worse. For Juddaholics, this is perversely good news. When the lady stars in a proficiently made movie like 1999's "Double Jeopardy," she is verily the Ida Lupino of her generation -- a B actress with an unswerving commitment to the melodramatic trash surrounding her. When she appears in a stinker like "Eye of the Beholder" (also 1999), her gumption can be camp icing on an inedible cake. "Twisted" isn't as fruit-bat crazy as "Beholder," but it'll still make for solid bad-movie fun when you catch it on Cinemax at 2 in the morning. Next week.

Judd plays Jessica Shepard, a San Francisco policewoman who is bumped up to the homicide squad in the film's opening scenes. Despite the adorable pixie cut and subtly applied lip gloss -- sorry, where was I? -- Jessica is a tough cookie who plays rough with suspects and rougher with the men she picks up in bars for quickie one-night sex. These men start turning up dead her first day on the new job, dispatched with all the marks of a gruesomely obsessed serial killer.

Whodunnit? Who didn't dunnit is a better question, since "Twisted," like "In the Cut," surrounds its heroine with a gallery of suspects who are twitchy psychos to a man. Is it Jimmy (Mark Pellegrino), the lovelorn cop with whom Jessica had a brief affair, or Ray (D.W. Moffett), the lovelorn attorney with whom she had same? Is it her moody new partner, Mike Delmarco (Andy Garcia), or her bereft old partner Wilson (Richard T. Jones)? It couldn't be Police Commissioner John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson), who raised Jessica after her cop father went on a murder-suicide rampage, or Dr. Melvin Frank (David Strathairn), the department-appointed psychiatrist who seems rather too interested in her past. What the heck, let's throw in the medical examiner (Camryn Manheim) and the jailed Hannibal Lecter clone (Leland Orser) while we're at it.

Or perhaps the killer is Jessica herself, since she's prone to blackouts after her evening glass of wine. Jessica's supposed to be the smartest cop on the force, but why she goes back to the same bottle of Cab Sav every night -- I didn't catch the label but presumably it's Chateau de Mickey Finn -- is one of the film's enduring mysteries.

Anyone who has experience with bad thrillers will spot the villain early on; one waits in vain for screenwriter Sarah Thorp to toss a curveball that actually curves. More depressingly, the director of this pigpile is Philip Kaufman, who once gave us smart, provocative movies like "The Right Stuff," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," and "Henry and June." Like Jane Campion with "In the Cut," Kaufman's an edgy mainstream auteur operating under the delusion that he's raising genre cheese to the level of art, but the opposite is true. The cinderblock cliches of the serial-killer thriller drag him down to the bottom of the bay.

Judd, bless her plucky heart, doesn't appear to know from art or junk. Both evoke in her the same raised eyebrow, the same steely glare, the same graceful, tawdry conviction. Doubters may cite this as proof of the actress's severe limitations. Those of us who have long since lost our critical faculties in the matter prefer to call it courage.

("Twisted": *)

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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