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Identity spices up the mystery

Did you ever yearn to see John Cusack star in one of those 'Friday the 13th' movies? Nah, I never did either. But he brings a substantial weight to 'Identity,' a film that, despite it's veneer of intelligence, is really just your basic slasher film at the core.

And it's a pretty darn good one.

A string of seemingly coincidental events brings a disparate group of lost souls to an out-of-the-way Nevada motel during a torrential rainstorm. Ed (Cusack) is a limo driver serving a washed-up movie star (Rebecca De Mornay); Paris (Amanda Peet) is a hooker fleeing Vegas to make a new start in Florida; Rhodes (Ray Liotta) is a corrections officer transporting a convicted murderer (Jake Busey); and George and Alice (John C. McGinley and Leila Kenzle) suffer a terrible road accident while on a car trip with their maybe-autistic son (Bret Loehr).

Director James Mangold ('Kate & Leopold,' 'Girl, Interrupted') presents this setup in a pretty straightforward way, cleverly leading the audience to believe what will follow is your standard folks-stranded-at-a-motel scare flick. But as the characters find themselves bumped off one by one, with no rhyme nor reason nor obvious murderer, the film careens from Jason territory into the realm of Agatha Christie. It's a deft twist on several conventions by screenwriter Michael Cooney (who last wrote Ñ I kid you not Ñ 'Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman') and genuinely keeps the audience guessing throughout.

Not that the mystery is entirely unfathomable. A secondary story, regarding a psychiatrist (Alfred Molina) who's trying to pull a last-minute stay of execution for a convicted serial killer (Pruitt Taylor Vince), offers some clues. As does, unfortunately, the film's title and poster, with an unsurprising lack of subtlety. But even if you figure it all out before Mangold and Cooney want you to, the sheer energy they bring to the film Ñ along with the talents of editor David Brenner ('What Dreams May Come,' 'The Patriot') Ñ makes it a hoot to just go along for the ride.

Cusack is, as always, impressive as Ed, whose own secrets explain why he may be the most capable limo driver ever. An actor of his stature could easily come off as thinking he's above this sort of material, but instead he elevates the film to his level, making it much smarter and more compelling than it might have been otherwise.

The cast as a whole is far superior than what you usually see in movies like this. McGinley, for example, a familiar face from feature films and television's 'Scrubs,' plays George as the ultimate milquetoast, a far cry from anything we've seen him play before.

The film's ending is unfortunately inane Ñ 'one last twist' syndrome strikes again! Ñ and you'll probably think of two or three better endings yourself in the car on the way home. But despite the bitter pill, 'Identity' is possibly the first genuinely surprising thriller of 2003, with a dandy mystery underneath the shocks and suspense.