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Travelers battle 'Identity' crisis

"Identity" is a good title for James Mangold's new movie, because a firm filmmaking identity is what this flip-flopping director has been needing.

He started his career with the excellent indie-art film "Heavy," then went more commercial with the portentous "Copland," then went downright kitschy in "Girl, Interrupted," which promptly interrupted my interest in his work.

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"Identity" isn't a brilliant comeback, but it's just loopy enough to be tantalizing, involving, and fun. It's also hard to review without giving away crucial secrets, so pardon me if I seem as elusive as the killer everyone in the movie is chasing. The first few scenes are creepy and scary. We're in a ramshackle motel on a stormy night. The highway is flooded, and the phones don't work. Our companions are a motley crew of stranded travelers, including a murderer headed for a court hearing just hours before his execution.

Then the corpses start piling up, the mood shifts from spooky to jokey - trading "Psycho" for "Scream" - and the plot grows crazier by the moment. Eventually, we learn there's a secret story line, and it's back to spookiness for the finale. All of which makes for a pretty wild ride if you're willing to leave your brain at the popcorn counter and let Mr. Mangold jolt your spine with every thriller-chiller trick in Hollywood's hefty book. I'm still not convinced he's a major director, but he's definitely back on the right road.

Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.