88 Minutes (2007) / Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity, and language
Running Time: 108 min.
Cast: Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Amy Brenneman, Leelee Sobieski, Benjamin McKenzie, Deborah Kara Unger, William Forsythe, Neil McDonough, Stephen Moyer
Director: Jon Avnet
Screenplay: Gary Scott Thompson
Review published April 16, 2007
Al Pacino (The Merchant of Venice, Simone) plays a Seattle college professor and part-time FBI forensic psychiatry expert, Jack Gramm, who made a name for himself as the chief witness for the prosecution in the death penalty case against suspected serial killer, Jon Forster (McDonough, The Guardian). On the eve of Forster's scheduled execution, another murder is committed in the city just like all of the ones that Forster allegedly carried through, raising enough doubts about Forster's guilt to raise the question of a potential stay of execution. The victim happens to be a student of Gramm's, calling him into question by the police, and before he can piece things together, he begins receiving mysterious phone calls on his cell telling him he has 88 minutes to live, and counting down. With little time, Forster has to get to the bottom of the phone calls and the new murders that are occurring -- is it Forster pulling some sort of strings from prison, or is Gramm responsible for putting the wrong man away? One way or another, it's certain that he doesn't have much time before he finds out.
88 Minutes is a supremely implausible thriller that will probably disappoint many viewers expecting that Pacino would never be involved with something so obviously bad. As it played, I remembered that this is the same Pacino that, for the past five years, has been making less-than-stellar films like Two for the Money, People I Know, and The Recruit, and even made a significant appearance in the film every critic loves to hate, Gigli. While it's to his credit that he does breathe personality into his otherwise cookie-cutter role in this film, in this case, it proves to be a double-edged sword. Bringing the semblance of intelligence to a film this blatantly stupid only serves to make each contrivance and obvious red herring that he falls for seem all the more mystifying. For a leaned professor and psychologist, this is one dumb guy. Well, he isn't a dumb guy, he's just written that way, to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit a bit here.
Many stupefying scenes abound. As part of the countdown from 88 minutes, such reminders appear in other forms. The amount of remaining minutes appears on an overhead projector. Later, it is written on the back of his car. The killer seems to be not only omniscient, but also impeccable in the timing and nature of Gramm's actions that he would not only notice these things, but that he would do so at just the right time. Although there are several characters that are thrown in to fool us as to who the real culprit is, it won't be much of a mystery to savvy thriller junkies. While a learned professor and forensic psychologist with a knack for putting things together ingeniously is bewildered, you will probably have it figured out an hour before the end of the film. As too many plot holes abound to warrant diligent attention, the only thing left to keep your interest is what will happen at the end of the countdown, and the reason behind it all.
I'm certain I haven't always followed the news when serial killers are about to be executed, but it seems to be that Forster is given an extraordinary amount of freedom on his final day. He gets interviewed live on a national news broadcast for an interminable amount of time, and even takes phone calls. Not that it seems plausible that someone could presumably even get convicted and receive the death penalty based almost solely on one psychologist's testimony on his state of mind when he purportedly committed these heinous acts, but once it's established, at the very least, the media probably wouldn't allow such a reviled man free reign to potentially damage the psyche of the family and friends of the victims one more time by giving him an open forum to the world.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to find that 88 Minutes ends up being substandard fare if you look at the filmography of its writer and director. Screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson's previous work includes such junk food material as The Fast and the Furious, Timecop 2, and K-911 -- not exactly indicative of someone that would pull off the crackerjack thriller of the year. Avnet, who replaces initial director James Foley at the helm, has done slightly better, though his only notable film is Fried Green Tomatoes, which is a pretty far cry from the kind of film that 88 Minutes is. Mediocre films like Red Corner and Up Close and Personal are his others.
One gets the impression that the film was meant to star someone much younger, as the diminutive 66-year-old actor plays a college professor who happens to get a lot of very fine 20-something tail on a frequent basis. I can see him seducing needy, scholastically-challenged students in exchange for better grades, but when they throw themselves at him without any expectations, it does stretch the credibility of the film. In one incredulous scene, Alicia Witt's (Last Holiday, The Upside of Anger) character, Kim, decides that in the middle of a stressful chase, she would allure Gramm into talking about the possibility of starting a family with him. My only question is: what magical cologne does Gramm use and how can I get some?
For such a bad, poorly developed movie, I think that 88 Minutes will find an audience among people who will watch any contrived thriller if it contains enough sensationalism and energy to allow for a bit of escapism. To Avnet's credit, there actually is some intrigue generated through wanting to know just what awaits at the end of the countdown, and also the hows and whys behind the death threats to Gramm. With a brisk pacing and a bevy of beautiful actresses, it's not difficult to watch as long as you aren't expecting anything remotely plausible or intelligent to transpire. A Pacino performance, mysterious plot, and eye candy actresses can titillate, even if the vehicle they are in fails to properly stimulate the mind.
Of course, even if the mystery in the film is answered, the bigger one still remains. At this point in Pacino's esteemed career, why does he stoop to making b-grade, straight-to-video caliber schlock? A few more of these and we can start a countdown of our own -- the irrelevancy of his appearances in future films. Tick tock, Pac-man.
©2007 Vince Leo