Ashley Judd has succeeded where a lot of other young actress have failed: she’s become the reigning queen of female action flicks. She’s gotten so good at playing the plucky damsel-in-distress in expensive potboilers like “Kiss the Girls,” “Double Jeopardy” and “High Crimes,” in fact, that extended shots of her jogging down urban streets purposefully in exercise duds or stripping down to her undies to show off her great physique have developed into virtual leitmotifs in her movies. The unhappy upshot is that the acting promise she demonstrated in “Ruby in Paradise” seems to have been permanently shelved. “Twisted” is just the latest in the string of A-budgeted B-movies in which the lovely but largely impassive Judd resolutely faces down danger and false accusation in Confronting Evil. As it turns out, it’s a route she’s traveled all too frequently. This is by far the weakest in the series of slick but silly pseudo-thrillers she’s churned out over the last few years, a supremely dumb who’s-doing-it concoction so crowded with red herrings that it smells like a fish market–something that may be suitable for a story set, like this one, in San Francisco, but is hardly very enticing in the viewing.

Judd plays Jessica Shepard, a cop newly promoted to homicide inspector. Her rise is deeply satisfying to police commissioner John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson), who raised Jessica after her father, Mills’s partner, cracked and killed his wife before committing suicide, and who’s nurtured her career in law enforcement too. Shepard’s entrance into the all-male homicide unit isn’t terribly easy. Though the supervisor, Lieutenant Tong (Russell Wong) seems hospitable enough, her new partner Mike Delmarco (Andy Garcia) is a peculiar, if supportive, sort, and the squad includes the predictably chauvinistic guy (Titus Welliver’s Dale Becker) who’s always making insulting remarks about her abilities. In addition, Jessica’s troubled by the attentions of patrolman Jimmy Schmidt (Mark Pellgrino), who whom she once had a fling he can’t forget, and by suggestions that she didn’t follow regulations in busting accused rapist-killer Edmund Cutler (Leland Orser), who’s being defended by another of her drooling ex-bed partners, a sleazy lawyer. But things really go south when the one-night stands she’s been regularly enjoying begin turning up dead–and she and Mike become lead investigators on what’s a serial killing spree. Even worse, the murders occur during blackouts that poor Jessica starts to suffer–leading her to imagine that she might be the killer herself. Of course there are plenty of other potential suspects in every direction, too.

This absurdly contorted, thoroughly implausible scenario was concocted by a female writer–Sarah Thorp–which makes it all the more remarkable that it features one of the most clueless, unsympathetic heroines featured on screen in a long while. Even what’s revealed as Shepard’s troubled childhood can’t explain (or justify) her extremely loose morals or her obstinate blindness about how she’s being manipulated, and Judd’s efforts to make her a credible character seem perfunctory at best. But nobody else comes off any better. Jackson doesn’t go beyond one-note sternness, Garcia’s forced to swing between bug-eyed suspiciousness and likableness, and Pellegrino succeeds only in persuading us that Jimmy’s a jerk. The remaining cast–including David Strathairn as Jessica’s concerned shrink and Camryn Manheim as the inevitably wise-cracking medical examiner–can’t transcend the caricatured parts Thorp has provided them with; and most of them are designed, in any event, to be nothing more than convenient suspects–until they get bumped off.

For so shallow and ludicrous a piece, “Twisted” has been decently mounted–the production design (Dennis Washington) and cinematography (Peter Deming) make solid use of the Bayside locations, and Mark Isham’s score tries to work up some tension and suspense–but the proficiency is futile. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the picture is that it’s directed by Philip Kaufman, who’s made such remarkable films as “The Right Stuff” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and even in less successful efforts like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Henry and June” and “Quills” has usually shown a real edge. (Even “Rising Sun” had a provocative undercurrent.) Here, though, his work could have been done by the hackiest of hacks. Perhaps he and Judd can recite, in unison, a line of dialogue that Jessica reads at one desperate moment in the movie: “I think I’ve done a terrible thing.” Or as Jessica’s legal suitor adds at another point, “Everybody makes mistakes.”

But not even a cinematic genius could have done much more with a script this bad than merely try to get through it without smirking. Occasionally this sort of slick trash can be written and played cleverly enough to hoodwink the audience in a pleasurable way–just think of “Primal Fear.” In this case, however, all the circumvention, misdirection and sleight of hand prove more frustrating than entertaining, especially since they lead to a final revelation that’s not only incredibly silly but clumsily played out besides. In the final analysis, all the twists in “Twisted” end up going nowhere.

I would, however, like to know where Jessica got that bottomless bottom of wine that’s so prominent in the picture–the one from which she drinks copiously each night, without ever needing to replace it. At a time when good California Cabernet Sauvignons have gotten pretty expensive, I want to pick up one of those.