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by Mike McGranaghan

Steven Taylor is used to having things his own way. He's what Tom Wolfe called a "Master of the Universe" with his high-paying Wall Street job, luxurious penthouse apartment, and gorgeous young trophy wife Emily. He gets what he wants. In A Perfect Murder, he also gets more than he bargained for. Part of what makes this loose remake of Dial M For Murder so tense is that it's not about an ordinary guy getting caught up in a nefarious scheme; it's about a guy like Steven Taylor who does.

Michael Douglas plays Taylor - perfect casting since Douglas specializes in characters who are flawed and edgy. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Emily, his young wife who has grown tired of his emotional coldness. She has found solace in the arms (and bed) of David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen), an artist whose Manhattan loft is a far cry from the posh home she lives in. It doesn't take Steven long to discover the affair, and naturally he is infuriated, although his anger may have more to do with losing to a starving artist than his wife's betrayal. One afternoon, Steven plays a visit to David's loft. He makes an offer: $500,000 cash to kill Emily.

I won't explain the plot any further (and I'm leaving some details out), but since this is a thriller, you can be sure that the plan does not go off without a hitch. There are some very real surprises in the plot. Like all good films of its kind, A Perfect Murder makes you think you know what will happen before it pulls the rug out from under you. When one major revelation was made, I had no clue what the exact implications of it were going to be...which made it much more eerie; you know there's a crucial piece missing. One of the best things about thrillers is that - when done right - they make you pay close attention and think about what you are watching. You get involved in a way that not every film is able to achieve.

A Perfect Murder is one of the more entertaining thrillers I've seen in a while, for this very reason. And I also liked the world that the story is set in. A guy like Steven Taylor thinks he's invincible. Years of business success, social status, and public recognition have made him believe he can conquer any obstacle. As the film progresses, we learn that Taylor has secrets aside from the murder proposition. There is a crack in the armor, and watching the murder plot spin out of control is torturous for him; he scrambles to keep all the plates spinning, even as he begins to realize for the first time that they may eventually fall.

Obviously, this is a role custom-made for Michael Douglas. One of the things I admire most about him as an actor is that he's not afraid to be unlikable on-screen. The characters he plays are often complicated, troubled men. Douglas really has a ball here because Taylor gives him a lot to work with. There is an ease with which he tackles the part; it's such a perfect fit between actor and role that you don't question it for a moment. From the first frame, I was involved with this guy.

The supporting performances match Douglas's in effectiveness and intensity. Gwyneth Paltrow (in her fourth movie this year) embodies the icy regret of a trophy wife. Emily probably thought she had a great deal at first: a sophisticated, wealthy husband, a dream apartment, more money than she could ever dream of spending. But then the reality set in that she was little more than a possession in her husband's eyes. Paltrow conveys all of this within the framework of the thriller plot. Such subtle shading of the character is one of the reasons why I cared about her fate. Emily has entered that upper-class world, but she hasn't become lost in it yet. Paltrow acts well with the excellent Viggo Mortensen (who was so good as Demi Moore's evil Master Sargent in G.I. Jane). But the less I say about his character, the better.

My one criticism of A Perfect Murder is the ending, which was reportedly re-shot at the last minute. Whereas the first hour and 40 minutes are suspenseful and intelligent, the final five are a sell-out. The film (which was otherwise nicely directed by The Fugitive's Andrew Davis) goes for a predictable thriller finale that is as absurd as the contrived finale of Paltrow's other 1998 thriller, Hush. A good movie is weakened by a lousy ending.

I recommend A Perfect Murder, though, for the performances and the sinister way this murder plot unfolds. Until its sappy conclusion, A Perfect Murder is a riveting story of how some people think they can get away with anything just because they have money.

( out of four)