I get it. Writer Gary Scott Thompson must have taken a "Get Rich Quick: Thriller in 90 minutes" course. Let's see: a semi-likable protagonist, a ticking clock, some gruesome murders, a slew of suspects, impossible situations, and a sympathetic cop. Bingo! You're on your way to a blockbuster. Not.
Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) is a celebrated forensic psychiatrist in Seattle working with the FBI. His most famous case was the murder of Joanie Cates (Vicky Huang). Her perp, Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), is now on death row thanks to Gramm's convincing testimony. On the eve of Forster's execution, Gramm receives an obscure phone call telling him that he has 88 minutes to live. Tick-tock.
At first Gramm disregards the threat.Then as the threats become more imminent -- and a student got murdered the night before -- he begins to suspect his students and people around him. Clearly Forster couldn't have committed the murder, and he rules out a copycat since the Cates murder was 9 years ago, and the new murder is down to the finest details. So could he have been wrong? Is Forster innocent? As his time is running out, Gramm must piece all the information together to find the real killer.
Al Pacino (Two For the Money) used to be a great, edgy actor doing incredibly unique work. Recently, however, he seems to be cashing in on his fame by doing second-rate thrillers. Yes, he's still intense and, yes, his now-leathery, over-tanned face is still full of personality, but his performance seems to be stuck in a rut. His expressions are often confused and his eyes glazed over. Somehow, the guy is a bit off at all times.
Alicia Witt (Last Holiday) plays one of Gramm's brilliant students. She has by far the second most prominent role in the film, and Gramm (as well the audience) doesn't know whether to trust her or not. Ah, the perpetual unreliable witness. Witt does well with the limitation she's given, often projecting either a shrewdness that makes you wonder about her motives, or a genuine sensitivity that makes you sympathize. At least she's interesting. Leelee Sobieski (The Elder Son) plays another student of Gramm's but she's really not given much to do. Her character should be the most interesting one given the plot twists we're going to witness, but she remains just a caricature.
The remaining cast includes Amy Brenneman (The Jane Austen Book Club) as Gramm's assistant Shelly, William Forsythe (Freedomland) as FBI agent Frank Park, and Deborah Kara Unger (Silent Hill) as Dean Carol Johnson. They all do their best given the material. Benjamin McKenzi (Junebug) has a throwaway part, whose main purpose is that of a red herring. Neal McDonough (The Hitcher) is totally wasted here -- one look at him and we know he's guilty. Is there any question about that?
Gary Scott Thompson's (2 Fast 2 Furious) screenplay has all the apparently right ingredients, and for a while they seem to work together. Once the real action starts, however, the script falls apart at an exponential rate. The plot is preposterous. The characters are paper-thin and their motivations incredibly skimpy and implausible. The twists are merely devices to send our hero on a wild goose chase with enough red herrings to fill the Pacific Ocean. The main problem is that these red herrings are forced, incredulous, and simply idiotic at times. For example, there are bomb threats all over the city and Gramm's Porsche just blew up? What happens next? Gramm just gets into a cab and drives off. Not to mention he does all that, goes to all these places in fewer than 90 minutes? The cell phones get annoying really quickly, too.
Also, Mr. Thompson, everyone who's familiar with mysteries know that the least expected person is usually the guilty one. Give us something more interesting, please. But predictability is not even the fatal flaw of Thompson's screenplay. The cardinal sin is that he completely misses the boat with his protagonist. Gramm is unlikable, unsympathetic (even with the history about his kid sister) and, worst of all, unintelligent. Seriously, this guy is a forensic psychiatrist, and we expect him to use his knowledge and wit to find and outsmart the killer. Not at all. Gramm is passive almost up to the end. He acts more like a confused idiot than an expert psychiatrist. When you fail to make the audience identify and care about the hero, all is lost.
The saving grace of this incredulous potboiler is Jon Avnet's (Up Close and Personal) direction. The pacing is taut and urgent, and the fast cutting keeps the tension going. There are some disturbing images to keep the blood boiling. Unfortunately, there's nothing Avnet can do to lift the film out of Thompson's dreck. Garbage in, garbage out. I'm just surprised someone like Pacino would be involved with such rubbish.
These are 88 minutes I can never get back.
Stars: Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, William Forsythe, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzi, Neal McDonough, Leah Cairns
Director: Jon Avnet
Writer: Gary Scott Thompson
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity and language
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Script – 3
Performance – 6
Direction – 6
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 5.2 out of 10