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Review: 'From Hell' is a body-counter

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Many pundits have expressed surprise -- nay, shock -- that Allen and Albert Hughes would have the effrontery to make the period drama, "From Hell."

After all these 29-year-old twin African-American directors are known for their gritty "in the hood" dramas like "Menace II Society" (1993) and "Dead Presidents" (1995). In "From Hell," there isn't an automatic weapon in sight and not a gangbanger around. How dare they?

First of all, the brothers resent any assumption that they can only make urban crime dramas -- as well they should.

Second, a good story is a good story no matter where, or when, it's set.

And third, this bloody thriller isn't necessarily covering new ground for the talented twins.

This re-telling of the Jack the Ripper legend, starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, is still set "in the hood." This time, it just happens to be the slums of the Whitechapel section of London, circa 1888, rather than the Watts district of Los Angeles, circa 1993.

Brutal street crime, drugs, prostitution and plenty of blood are once again present in a Hughes brothers production. So, while the two should be applauded for breaking out of the stereotypes Hollywood might like to stick them with, at the same time they're not really breaking away all that much.

Johnny Depp and Heather Graham star in 'From Hell'

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That being said, too bad it's not a better movie.

Depp stars as Inspector Fred Abberline, a deeply flawed antihero who developed a love for the opium pipe after his wife and child were killed. Robbie Coltrane plays Sgt. Peter Godley, a fellow cop and loyal friend, who keeps an eye on Abberline when he's off "chasing the dragon."

It's Godley who brings to Abberline's attention the mysterious murders occurring in the London slum of Whitechapel. Inhabited by drunks, beggars, petty thieves and prostitutes, it's an area where murders often go uninvestigated.

But these killings are different. The victims are always ladies of the evening, their throats are viciously cut and organs have been removed from their bodies -- removed by someone with a knowledge of human anatomy. The killer is given a name: Jack the Ripper.

Heather Graham plays Mary Kelly, a pretty Irish lass whose dreams of the big city have turned to dust as she's forced to work the streets in order to live. Surrounding Mary are her few friends and fellow prostitutes Kate (Lesley Sharp), Liz (Susan Lynch), Dark Annie (Katrin Cartlidge) and Polly (Annabelle Apsion). Slowly, it becomes clear that these women have something in common beside their profession -- they're all targets of this killer, and Abberline is the only one standing between them and certain death.

Screenwriters Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias have woven many of the old rumors and fables about the Jack the Ripper case into their script for "From Hell," which is loosely based on Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name. There's a member of the British royal family allegedly involved, and the struggles between the classes in this Victorian-era setting is at the heart of the story.

This gritty movie gets down into the gutter, and the production values, scenic design, wardrobe and sets all contribute to a feeling of authenticity. Working with director of photography Peter Deming, the Hughes brothers have created a film that looks great, with some amazing uses of light and shadow, camera angles and stop-framed editing -- also check out the red skies.

Depp, as usual, gives a picture-perfect performance. His Inspector Abberline comes to life as a man who has lost his will to live, only to regain it when facing death.

Graham is actually quite good as Mary, the hooker with the proverbial heart of gold. She maintains her accent, and gives a nice portrayal of a woman who somehow manages to hold onto her dreams despite living in a nightmare.

Somehow, it's just not enough.

"From Hell" is fragmented and yet totally predictable. Rather than a cohesive film, it feels like a series of vignettes -- little "movie moments" put there for your viewing pleasure. You may find yourself counting the killings: "Let me see, that's No. 4. Now, how many did he kill?

"And when will this movie be over?"

"From Hell" opens nationwide on Friday, October 19, and is rated "R" with a running time of two hours, 17 minutes.


• From Hell

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