88 Minutes (2008): Jon Avent’s Thriller, Starring Al Pacino

Though it’s only April, it’s safe to predict that the new Al Pacino vehicle, the wannabe serial killer thriller 88 Minutes, might become one of year’s worst films.

Inept on any level, it’s an embarrassing film for all the talent concerned, both in front and behind the cameras.  Pacino must have needed work and money; actors need to eat too.

Every element of the film is problematic, from its title to the lack of logic in the storytelling and characters motivations to the star’s look. Moreover, the feature violates the very premise upon which the narrative is based, set to take place over 88 minutes, though the picture’s actual running time is 106 minutes.
Even the old Zinnemann (“High Noon”) understood that in order to create heightened suspense in a story spanning real time, the feature’s running time must be the same or very close to yarn’s duration.

Rendering one of his silliest, least convincing performances, Pacino is (mis) cast as Dr. Jack Gramm, an FBI forensic psychologist and Seattle college professor. One of our most brilliant actors, Pacino has played a wide range of roles, but if memory serves, this is his first attempt at playing an academic. As was demonstrated in a career spanning 40 years, when Pacino is good, he can be astonishing (“The Godfather” movies, “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Scent of a Woman”) but when he is bad, he is truly dreadful (“Revolution,” recently “Two for the Money”).

Never a great or subtle director, Jon Avent has nonetheless made several decent films, such as the popular and well-acted chick flick “Fried Green Tomatoes” and the middling romantic feature “Up Close and Personal” with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer doing sort of a contempo newspaper version of “A Star Is Born.” However, here, Avnet is defeated by Gary Scott Thompson’s inane scenario-and falls flat on his face.

On the eve of a brutal serial killers scheduled execution, a new murder bearing his signature takes place, raising doubts about his guilt and casting suspicion on Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino), a celebrated forensic psychiatrist whose testimony led to his conviction. Gramm then receives a cryptic phone call that informs him that he has just 88 minutes to live, igniting a race against the clock to identify the copycat killer from among several possible suspects-including some of those closest to him.

A wannabe tense psychological thriller, “88 Minutes” follows an FBI profiler down a rabbit hole of violence, deception and intrigue. Like John Badham’s “Nick of Time” with Johnny Depp and a few other thrillers, “88 Minutes” is meant to be a paranoia-fueled suspenser that takes place virtually in real time, but as noted, it violates its clock-ticking text. The drama purports to go inside the brilliant mind of a man whose cynical nature and professional experience call for suspecting the worst in people.

Let me be more specific about the plot details. Early on, it’s established that famed forensic psychiatrist Gramm has built a reputation for successfully profiling serial killers, including Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), who was sentenced to death primarily on the strength of Gramms expert testimony. One night before Forster is scheduled to be executed, the city is rocked by a killing that matches his crimes exactly. It turns out that the victim is no other than one of Gramms students.

Obstacles abound to make Gramm’s work harder. Though determined to prove the murder is the work of a copycat, but he soon finds himself contending with Forsters well-orchestrated public relations campaign to discredit him, a second copycat killing, and a series of mysterious phone threats, starting with the aforementioned one about his last 88 minutes to live. Hence, Gramm is told, “You should know what it feels like to be minutes from your own death. To hear the ticking of the clock and know your time on earth is drawing to a close. 88 minutes ring a bell to you”

Convinced that the threat and the murders are connected, Gramm first turns to his assistant Shelly Barnes, played by the intelligent actress Amy Brenneman (of TV’s Judging Amy fame and features like “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “Nine Lives”), who is totally wasted. He also recruits some of his top graduate students to help him resolve the mystery.

Gradually a sense of paranoia and serious self-doubts enter into the already grim but senseless text. As Gramm gets deeper and deeper into the case, “dark secrets” from his past begin to surface, forcing him to consider that perhaps the conspiracy stems from his own inner circle. Even his former contact at the FBI Frank Parks (William Forsythe, also underused) begins to doubt him, as Gramms list of possible suspects lengthens and his remaining time dwindles.

As the calls continue the relentless countdown to his doom and Gramms paranoia escalates, so do the very real attacks against him. Predictably, in the end, Gramm can only rely on his instincts to discover the truth before his 88 minutes are up-never mind that his instincts had failed him before, more than once.

There has not been a good, effective serial killer thriller for a while, which might have served as the motivating factor for making “88 Minutes.” However, the main problem of the picture is that it’s truly dumb, and the viewers are almost always ahead of Gramm and the scenario. It’s never a good sign when the average viewer is brighter and more alert that the protag, which is certainly the case here.

In the production notes, Avent is quoted as saying: There’s one thing in every story that’s literally the guts of the movie, and in this case, the guts of the movie are Als character, Jack Gramm. In this respect, Avnet is right. It doesn’t help that Pacino, sporting a strange hairdo and ranting, looks lost in the maze and can’t nail the part; Pacino might have realized during the shoot how inane the whole exercise is and just gave up on acting sensibly.

Cast

Jack Gramm – Al Pacino
Kim Cummings – Alicia Witt
Lauren Douglas – Leelee Sobieski
Shelly Barnes – Amy Brenneman
Frank Parks – William Forsythe
Carol Lynn Johnson – Deborah Kara Unger
Mike Stempt – Benjamin McKenzie
Jon Forster – Neal McDonough
Sara Pollard – Leah Cairns
Guy LaForge – Stephen Moyer
Jeremy Guber – Christopher Redman
Johnny D’Franco – Brendan Fletcher
J.T. Rycker – Michael Eklund
Janie Cates – Tammy Hui
Joanie Cates – Vicky Huang
Kate – Victoria Tennant

Credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment (in U.S.) release of a TriStar Pictures and Millennium Films presentation of a Randall Emmett-George Furla (U.S.) production for Equity Pictures Medienfonds and Nu Image Entertainment (Germany).
Produced by Jon Avnet, Randall Emmett, Gary Scott Thompson, Avi Lerner.
Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, George Furla, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager, Lawrence Bender, John Baldecchi.
Co-producers: Michael Flannigan, John Thompson, Samuel Hadida, Marsha Oglesby, Jochen Kamlah, Gerd Koechlin, Manfred Heid.
Directed by Jon Avnet.
Screenplay, Gary Scott Thompson.
Camera: Denis Lenoir.
Editor: Peter Berger.
Music: Edward Shearmur.
Production designer: Tracey Gallacher.
Art director: Jeremy Stanbridge.
Set designer: Christopher Stewart.
Set decorator: Dominique Fauquet Lemaitre.
Costume designer: Mary McLeod.
Sound: Darren Brisker; rerecording mixers, Jonathan Wales, Jerry Gilbert.
Stunt coordinators: Scott Ateah, Owen Walstom.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 106 Minutes.