There’s only two questions that “88 Minutes” brings up – why is Al Pacino slumming it and why wasn’t this released direct-to-DVD. The answer is of course money, that perennially justifiable excuse behind the inevitable quality drop-off of our greatest actors as their careers wind down.
Jack Nicholson, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Robert DeNiro, etc. the list goes on of some truly brilliant thesps who, despite the occasional critical gem or well-produced mainstream hit breaking the pattern, have found themselves stuck in ruts. It’s hard to say if the good roles simply aren’t on offer to them anymore, but once that first dog is off the leash – you know, the point where an actor is obviously doing the role for the money and not the challenge – that slide will continue all the way down until their inevitable retirement.
Pacino himself post-“Godfather” had one of the most enviable careers of any actor – even in his occasional duds like “Revolution” or misfires like “Cruising”, he was fascinating talent to watch and always lifted the material above what was on the page. Since 2002’s “S1m0ne” however, he’s been struggling. A stellar job as an AIDS-inflicted bigot in HBO’s “Angels in America” mini-series notwithstanding, his efforts have ranged from the forgettable (“The Recruit”), to the tedious (“Two for the Money,” “Ocean’s Thirteen”) to the downright painful (“Gigli”). Joining that last group is this new cinematic atrocity.
There have been worse films already this year to be sure. The similar “Untraceable” was another dire ‘hunt the killer’ thriller stocked with cliches and a quality actor (in that case Diane Lane) collecting dividends. Still, there was a well-crafted setup and good production values – areas this utterly fails in. Replete with gaping plot holes and coincidences that pile up by the minute, the film paints Pacino as leading forensic psychologist Jack Gramm who is teaching behavioral science to college students. It also seems that one of them is working for a serial killer on death row (Neal McDonough) who was put away on Gramm’s testimony. That person is now killing new victims in an attempt to discredit and frame Gramm.
The film’s biggest problem, aside from its predictability, is simply its over reach. Gary Scott Thompson’s script throws in absolutely everything it can – from multiple red herrings and car bombs to dashes of mild torture porn and lots of Pacino running about – all set to a “24”-esque real-time gimmick. It’s a messy jumble which very quickly falls apart under the weight of any credible analysis, and stretches well past the ridiculous long before the inevitable reveal.
For starters the ‘real time’ gimmick is useless – the action is still shot and edited like a regular movie, so one second Pacino will be leaving his office, cut to his car pulling up outside another building – yet narrative wise it’s also only a second later. There’s no ratcheting of suspense, or even moderate pacing thanks to the bored-looking Pacino who seems blissfully medicated throughout. For a man under a death threat, his character seems surprisingly relaxed and spends a lot of the film either on the phone, popping in and out of offices, or just happening upon the same group of people every other minute despite being on a campus of thousands.
Also strange is the man’s sex appeal – never has a film made being a middle-aged college professor seem like such a chick magnet. Surrounded by sexy students and cops, it seems every woman he meets either wants to or has already slept with him – even the fun Amy Brenneman as a not-terribly convincing lesbian cop. No surprise I guess when the only competition is William Forsythe in his typical gruff cop role, or “The OC” hunk Benjamin McKenzie who barely has more than a few lines of screen time.
The usually strong Alicia Witt, dressed in a skimpy babydoll top as a student turned sidekick in Gramm’s investigations, is probably the second largest role here – yet she disappoints. It’s not her fault, Director Jon Avnet seems to have forced all his actors to go over the top in their attempts to play up the ‘whodunnit’ angle. In spite of quite a few suspects who fit predictable murder mystery thriller cliches, the true answer is hardly a surprise and certainly a celebration of campy acting in the extreme.
It’s a dirty little movie – shot on the cheap, hastily cobbled together, utterly nonsensical, and downright exploitative. Overcooked in the extreme, it’s shoddy in practically every way a film can be crafted. Make no mistake, this is a direct-to-video nasty that has only gone theatrical due to Pacino’s role. It may be his worst role to date, but even so he’s still Al Pacino and an undeniable talent – even on autopilot. Compare this however with his work in 1989’s often-underrated and still compelling “Sea of Love”, a film in which he also hunted down a mystery killer, and you can’t help but shake your head at how far the mighty thesp has fallen.