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‘Stranger’ is far from perfect

Story starts promisingly but then descends into a series of convoluted twists. By John Hartl

Almost nothing is what it seems in “Perfect Stranger,” an absurdly convoluted, indifferently acted thriller that dramatizes the opportunities for identity fakery and theft on the Internet.

Like too many contemporary thrillers, it relies on messages on a computer screen to establish crucial plot points. In place of action and character development, it offers chat rooms, passwords, compromised security systems and the abstract thrill of “climbing the firewall.”

This kind of computer-based cinematic storytelling has been around at least since “WarGames” (1983), in which Matthew Broderick used his geeky instincts to tap into a nuclear warning system. “Perfect Stranger,” starring Halle Berry as a relentless investigative reporter who relies heavily on Internet intelligence, adds nothing but confusion and tedium to the mix.

In a prologue that turns out to be the most entertaining sequence, Berry’s character, Rowena Price, almost succeeds in her attempt to expose the sexual hypocrisy of a closeted gay senator (Gordon MacDonald) whose story bears a resemblance to recent real-life political follies. While Rowena and her genius assistant, Miles Haley (Giovanni Ribisi), are celebrating their scoop, they’re informed that the story has been squashed by higher powers and will never run in their New York newspaper.

After Rowena chooses to resign, she’s contacted by an old acquaintance (Nicki Aycox) who is soon brutally murdered, evidently by a wealthy, married philanderer, Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis), who sexually harasses his most attractive new employees. Rowena and Miles set out to nail him, though there are complications, including Miles’ unrequited fondness for Rowena — and Rowena’s addiction to a traitorous ex-lover.

The kinkiness quotient is upped when Rowena gives into her lust for her ex, and Miles has a Tom Cruise-like moment with his couch. Willis’ casual relationship with his willfully oblivious wife keeps their relationship from becoming predictable.

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So far, so interesting. But then the filmmakers start to pile on a series of contrived twists, and unfortunately they choose to use PC technology to reveal them. The result is a movie that seems more concerned with e-mail confessions than it is with the people delivering them. Even a potentially explosive scene, in which Hill brutally attacks an employee in front of his staff, fails to register as anything but a mild aberration.

Jon Bokenkamp, who wrote the 2004 Angelina Jolie thriller, “Taking Lives,” collaborated on the story and screenplay with “Elf” producer Todd Komarnicki. The director, James Foley, has made some remarkable movies (“Glengarry Glen Ross,” “After Dark, My Sweet,” “At Close Range”) as well as a couple of Mark Wahlberg stinkers (“Fear,” “The Corruptor”).

“Perfect Stranger,” alas, resembles the Wahlberg movies more than it does “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Foley is a creative filmmaker who works hard to make each scene count, and he’s clearly worked closely with his cinematographer, Anastas Michos (“Freedomland”), and his editor, Christopher Tellefsen (“Capote”).

But once the narrative reversals start flying, it’s hard to care what happens to any of these people. During its final half hour, the movie collapses in a near-parody of film-noir styles and surprises. It’s impossible to keep a straight face during the final revelations.