(Movie Review by Kevin Nickelson) I must confess to being skeptical when Hollywood produces a suspense thriller these days. Generally, they tend to be very slick but overtly superficial time-killers. These films have dog-eared scripts (or, in some cases, a script that Rover left his mark on) dressed up with all the frills that $80,000,000 can buy. The average fan sums these films up usually, upon leaving the theater or chatting around the office water-cooler, as “fun thrill rides” or “a good rollercoaster ride”. “88 Minutes” is exactly that. At least the guy in the lead car for this attraction is the ever bombastic Al Pacino. So we won’t jump the tracks with this one, will we? Will we?
The film stars Pacino as Dr. Jack Gramm, a Seattle college professor who moonlights as a forensic psychiatrist (I guess all the retail store greeter jobs were taken). Years ago, Jack testified against serial killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough, in a nicely charismatic turn). Gramm’s testimony and that of two others, a witness and the sister of one of Forster’s victims, helped put Forster on death row. Years later, on the eve of Forster’s execution, Jack receives a phone call stating he has only eighty-eight minutes to live. Couple this with a series of murders that copycat the work of Forster and you’ve got serious problems for the doc, the FBI agent in charge (William Forsythe), Gramm’s boss (and ex-lover) at the university (Amy Brenneman, wasted in a thankless role), his assistant (Alicia Witt) and his students (Leelee Sobieski, Benjamin McKenzie among others). Forster insists that Gramm manipulated the jury and coerced the afore-mentioned witness and victim’s sister to testify against him to ensure his conviction and sentence of death.
Is Forster right? Is the good professor behind all this? Or is something else going on? Gramm believes that a copycat is committing the crimes just to get Forster a stay of execution, a new trial and, maybe, freedom and he sets out to prove it while dodging attempts on his own life.
“88 Minutes” is, indeed, a great-looking film. That is, if you can let slide the fact that director Jon Avnet uses Vancouver, British Columbia in place of Seattle. There is excellent usage of somber, muted color to convey a depressed atmosphere. Gramm’s world is rather bleak and we get to trudge through it with him. Avnet also does well with the movie’s pace, keeping the audience interested with the customary car explosion, foot chase, gun battle, and a nifty climax. Avnet is no stranger to suspense thrillers, having produced the exciting “Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow” (2004) and directed the underrated “Red Corner” (1997) starring Richard Gere, and shows that experience here.
The big problem here is a script that gives us both cardboard cut-out characters and hands out all the standard (i.e.: ancient) mystery movie clichés in such abundance you will need a large shopping cart with you to carry them all through to the film’s end. Red herrings, obvious plot twists, stereotypes (a creepy campus security guard, tough guy cop, etc), and some truly tired dialogue mix together for an extremely familiar brew. Brenneman and Witt are given nothing to do, as if their roles were written in just to meet a quota. Forsythe does well as the blustery FBI man Frank Parks, but he’s done the hard-nosed cop role many times before. Sobieski once again fails to bring depth to her role as one of Gramm’s students who may or may not be directly involved in the mystery.
Even Pacino, himself, struggles with a standard role. Ever the acting vet, however, the star compensates with appropriate intensity and throws in a few of his usual tricks, such as the over-heated dialogue scene. The one where Al gets into it with a co-star to such an extent you swear fire is going to shoot out of his mouth in the end. Here it happens during an impromptu phone conversation on national tv between Gramm and Forster. But even the legendary Pacino cannot save this ride from stalling repeatedly before it’s over.
As we speed away on the movie rollercoaster, we should ask ourselves this: for eighty-million dollars, couldn’t we get more than “88 Minutes”?
Jon Avnet (director) / Gary Scott Thompson (screenplay)
CAST: Al Pacino … Dr. Jack Gramm
Alicia Witt … Kim Cummings
Leelee Sobieski … Lauren Douglas
Amy Brenneman … Shelly Barnes
William Forsythe … Special Agent Frank Parks
Deborah Kara Unger … Carol Johnson