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88 MINUTES

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, Neal McDonough
Director: Jon Avnet
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Sony
Features: See Review
Length: 107 Minutes
Release Date: September 16, 2008

“Tick tock, doc.”

Film *

Numerous things occur to you while watching certain movies, and two things occurred to me while I was watching 88 Minutes. I realized that Al Pacino had never been in a movie as truly bad as this one.  I also realized that, after seeing both this and The Number 23, thrillers with numbers in the title should be avoided like the plague.

Now think about the Pacino factor, because it’s really amazing. Here we have one of the greatest actors of all time who, with the possibility of Bobby Deerfield (which I’ve never seen and have been told to avoid), has never headlined a truly bad movie in his career. With the exception of a few mediocre films (Two For the Money, Revolution, Cruising), Pacino has enjoyed a most legendary career.

He even popped up for one scene in the much-reviled Gigli, which while not a good movie is far from the excessive garbage fest everyone made it out to be. And, wouldn’t ya know it, his one scene was the best part of that movie. I even enjoyed Al in such fare as The Recruit and Simone, which were not hits with critics.

But every great actor has to slip eventually. It’s just too bad that it had to happen to Al at age 68 and nearly 40 years into his career. And while he is the only best thing about 88 Minutes, the movie itself is the kind of lousy mess that no great actor could save.

So what went wrong? Not only do you have the great Pacino headlining the movie, but you also have a competent enough director in the form of Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner). Again I ask, what went wrong? Why did I find myself laughing unintentionally at so many moments, as if it were a badly made TV movie?

I can only guess that for some inane reason, the screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson was a bad first draft that got mixed up with a better version, and the filmmakers didn’t care enough to double check the so-called revised version. Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but I can’t seriously think of a better explanation for the movie that ended up on the screen. Didn’t Pacino, one of the great method actors, even bother to offer any creative input?

Guess not, as it was clearly a case of a great payday for all involved. What’s makes the movie even worse is that it takes itself completely seriously in the midst of such consistent lousiness. The story applies loads of exposition on various plot points where it isn’t needed. And the more it tries to throw the audience off with countless red herrings, the more inane it gets.

The story involves Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino), a forensic psychiatrist who works with the FBI in Seattle. Gramm also teaches a related course at a university. He’s pretty well off, and is enjoying numerous flings with several of his female students, which is one of the many details the story focuses on more than it should.

Nine years ago, Gramm’s testimony helped give the death sentence to accused murderer/rapist John Forster (Neal McDonough). It was a damn informative testimony, too. All Gramm says when he’s on the stand is that Forster is a serial murderer and rapist, and will do it again. If every case could be closed just as easy.

However, there seem to be a series of copycat murders in the time since the conviction of the accused. On the very day Forster is scheduled to die by lethal injection, Gramm gets a call on his cell phone from a mysterious voice, telling him that he only has 88 minutes to live. Who could the person on the other line be? Well, just about everyone else in the movie since the screenplay makes the boneheaded choice of giving every character a possible motive, which is conveyed mostly by having a suspicious close up at any given moment.

And we have many, many suspicious characters to choose from. Could it be Gramm’s teaching assistant (Alicia Witt) or his top student in the class (Leelee Sobieski)? Or perhaps it’s the university dean (Deborah Kara Unger) or his personal secretary (Amy Brenneman), or it could be Forster orchestrating the plot right from prison. At this point, of course we’re not going to know who the killer is in the end since the screenplay gives everybody surrounding Pacino a motive within ten minutes of his or her introduction.

This reminded me of Mindhunters, a most underrated action thriller from a few years ago, which took a similar structure in setting up every character with a motive for being a killer. But that movie had so much more going for it, from the “Ten Little Indians” plot scenario to the solid production values, and worked as all around mindless fun. Renny Harlin knows how to handle such material. Had he been the director of 88 Minutes, we would’ve probably had a tighter, more solid thriller.

I should point out that even though the film’s running time is 107 minutes, there are actually 88 minutes left in the movie when Pacino’s character receives the threatening call, which is about the only clever gimmick it has going for it. But then that clever gimmick is ruined when Gramm gets threats everywhere, whether it’s seeing the words “76 minutes to live” projected on the wall in his classroom, or “72 minutes to live” carved into his car. The movie is practically begging you to glance at your watch to see if the right amount of minutes have past in between threats, thus taking you completely out of the movie.

To be quite honest, the movie should’ve been titled “Wireless Paranoia”, because what 88 Minutes ends up being is an 88-minute add for cell phones. If I had a nickel for all the moments Pacino is engaging in dialogue exchanges via cell phone, I would have enough money to pay off my Verizon bill for the next two or three years. It goes without saying; the concept of phoning something in has more than one meaning here. And this complaint is coming from a guy who loves the show 24, which practically invented the cell phone dialogue exchange.

So is there anything good in the movie? Well, Pacino does what he can with such mind-numbingly awful material. There are moments where he’s doing some trademark Pacino acting, but for a character who’s life has been seriously threatened, he never really injects a sense of fear necessary for the scenario. Again, did Al not stop to offer creative input when clearly nobody else was bothering to do so?

But a bad performance would be the least of Pacino’s problems in this movie, because I’m convinced that either a hair stylist wasn’t available on set, or he just didn’t care how much his poofy hair stood out in numerous scenes. I hate that I even have to comment about this, but in a movie this bad you tend to notice such things. It’s also clear that Al got some good time in the tanning bed before making the movie.

There is actually one great scene in the movie, yet it once again involves the use of a cell phone. Pacino makes a call into a live interview of the accused killer. The two get into a heated exchange of words that results in quite a riveting scene. In fact, I’m wondering if it made it into the movie by accident because the scenes surrounding this one moment are so unbelievably bad.

The only reason I could ever recommend 88 Minutes is if you’re in the mood to laugh yourself insane at the amazing lameness plaguing this thriller, which takes itself seriously throughout. Otherwise, I can only hope that Al Pacino has already forgotten making this travesty. The only good news to come out of this movie is that director Jon Avnet will be directing Pacino and Robert De Niro in the upcoming Righteous Kill, the trailer for which already indicates a far greater movie.

Video ***

The video presentation from Sony is a decent one, if not entirely fantastic. The setting of Seattle was a nice touch, and the city is captured quite nicely. And the daytime sequences fare much better than darker lit scenes, which don’t appear as strong as they could. For the most part, though, a most fine presentation.

Audio ***1/2

For any thriller, good or bad, you will always get a decent sound mix, and this 5.1 mix does deliver in the areas it needs to. Dialogue delivery is strong throughout, and some set pieces do result in some very good dynamic surround sound. And what suspense is offered in the movie is captured extremely well in the presentation.

Features **

Included on this Sony release is commentary with director Jon Avnet, which is actually a good listen. Avnet, believe it or not, finds a good bit to talk about throughout the movie. Also included is an Alternate Ending, two brief featurettes, “Director’s Point of View” and “The Character Within” and some Bonus Previews for additional Sony releases, including Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, Vantage Point, Quarantine and the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.

Summary:

I went into 88 Minutes expecting a powerhouse entertainment, and what I got was the complete opposite. Being that this is, in my opinion, the first major misstep in Al Pacino’s career, that’s not such a bad thing because at this point he can bounce back from such a disaster. At the same time, I seriously hope he considers audience before paycheck for future projects.

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