(Long Island, N.Y.) When an American movie featuring a major star finishes filming in December of 2005 but isn’t released nationally until April of 2008, you tend to suspect its overall quality may have some…minor issues. I mean, it’s normal for Hollywood studios to bump up the premiere of a film they’re confident will do well, not let it sit on a shelf until they find a gaping hole in their release schedule in need of plugging. Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I went to see 88 Minutes, the new murder mystery starring ol’ Scarface himself, Al Pacino. But to my surprise, I found Al’s latest foray into cinema to be quite well done- well, at least until the ending, where it all just turns amazingly stupid. But we’ll get to that in due time, my friends.
88 Minutes opens with a rather harrowing scene- the binding and mutilation of a young girl named Jonie Kay in her apartment by a vicious serial killer, one that seemed to take a special delight in the pain he was inflicting. But even more disturbing was the fact that the killer managed to erect an elaborate system of pulleys, ropes, and counterweights to suspend his victim upside-down from her living room ceiling without managing to wake her slumbering sister Janie in the next room 5 feet away. Although able to sleep through heavy construction, the piercing meow of a small cat finally awakes Janie, who promptly blunders in on the carnage. She too is attacked, but manages to drive off the killer by alerting neighbors with her screams. Though she was too late to save her sister, her eye-witness account soon contributes to the murderer being brought to justice- a man named Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), who had killed women in this weird fashion countless times before.
At the trial, Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino), a forensic psychiatrist for the FBI and college professor, is brought in by the case’s prosecutor to give his psychological profile of Forster. Gramm’s incendiary testimony is immensely damaging to the defense and key in convicting the accused killer, who ultimately receives the Death Sentence for his crimes (all while proclaiming his innocence). With Forster finally getting his comeuppance, Gramm goes back to his teachings at Northwest Washington University, but soon thereafter starts getting a bizarre and alarming series of calls to his cell phone, with a gruff and mysterious voice informing him that he has (gasp!) 88 minutes to live. Initially dismissing this as a simple prank, Gramm changes his tune when a series dead women start popping up, women all murdered with Forster’s modus operandi. Either the convicted murderer is somehow arranging for these killings from jail in an attempt to cast doubt upon his conviction, or a copycat is at work. Either way, someone other than Forster has it out for the good Dr. Gramm, and this enigmatic person stalking him with the intent of ending his life could be anyone. The fact that this person has intimate knowledge about Gramm’s hidden and tragic past only serves to heighten the tension. Who is this and how do they know so much? With almost nothing to go on and the clock ticking, Gramm soon suspects his students, his colleagues, his friends- hell, the mariachi band at the local Mexican joint may be in on it for all he knows. However, 88 minutes isn’t long and the clock is ticking, as the stalker is only too happy to remind our distressed hero at every opportunity. Gramm must solve the mystery before time is up…or else!
88 Minutes has gotten some pretty bad press, and the fact that the finished product sat in limbo for quite some time before its release certainly didn’t help. I went in expecting a great steaming pile of crap that I could have a lot of fun bashing in my review, but instead was confronted with a solid, well-paced film with fairly interesting characters brought to life by some very talented actors. William Forsythe (seen recently in The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween), who played an FBI colleague of Jack Gramm’s, continues to remain the chameleon of Hollywood. Not only does the guy excel at playing rough and gritty roles, but he’s practically unrecognizable from film to film, masking his appearance not with make-up or special effects, but his acting talent and mannerisms (well, and his hair styles). He’s been in the business since way before my time, but his recent work has really convinced me that I have to track down and watch his past work.
Another solid performance is issued forth from the very cute Alicia Witt, but a big standout and surprise to me was Al Pacino himself. Hey, no one needs a lecture on the man’s credentials- Al’s done it all. But, in what must be considered the twilight of his acting career, he still manages to melt into a role and convince you that he inhabits his specific character’s skin. Yeah, the voice and age lines always serve to remind you that it’s Pacino, but in 88 Minutes he gave a very likable, intense performance. It would almost be safe to say that he carried the whole movie on his shoulders, as Dr. Jack Gramm, when taken as a whole, actually had a lot of negative qualities. As
presented in the movie, he’s rash, arrogant, an alcoholic, and a total womanizer (there’s nothing really wrong about that last one, but when you look like Al does these days, will anyone really believe it?). However, Pacino manages to make Jack a very human character- when he reveals his aforementioned tragic secret past near the end of the film, you really do feel for the guy. That’s no small feat.
Plus, at 67, Pacino is in pretty damn good shape. He’s shown sprinting up stairways and across hallways like Carl Lewis, leaving me feeling ashamed that this man could probably leave me in his dust- and I’m half his age. I’m badly in need of 200 hours on a Stairmaster…
So, with all this praise so far, why did I rate the movie a mere 2 stars? Well, a few things. First, while the script moves along at a brisk pace and keeps you guessing, the only reason it actually manages to keep you guessing is because it gives you almost nothing to go on. Light is cast upon millions of possible suspects, but nothing concrete is ever given to the viewer. Perhaps this was done to help you see things from Gramm’s perspective, but I think it was more because the scriptwriter just wasn’t on his “A” game.
Also, there was this one scene that was just plain laughable (and I mean that in a bad way). It goes like this: After a brief gun battle with an unknown assailant who then sets his building on fire, Jack makes a hasty exit down a smoke-filled stairwell along with many of his fellow tenants. While still holding his gun. Once down on the street, a street teeming with cops and firefighters, Gramm is still opening brandishing the pistol, wandering around with a somewhat confused expression on his face for no reason. Some old lady sees the weapon and cries “OH MY GOD A GUN!!” Everyone freaks and runs, and Jack dives for cover, as if perhaps the woman was referring to someone other than himself. You’d think he’d finally get the message and stick the damn thing in his pocket or down his pants, but he instead spends the next 10 minutes flailing it about like an idiot.
And finally, let’s talk about that ending. With all the cloak and dagger stuff going on, I was hoping for a better payoff than what I got. I’m not going to spoil anything, but let’s just say that the ending felt thrown together and deeply, deeply unsatisfying. The stalker is revealed, and the character in question was a ridiculous choice as the bad guy, and their motivations for all the evil shenanigans committed throughout the course of the movie are just plain silly. Few things, cinematically speaking, leave such a bad taste in my mouth as a solid film ruined by a mind-blowing stupid ending. It reminds me of the French-made horror film High Tension in this respect, although it’s not really in the same good movie/bad ending ballpark (High Tension’s highs were much higher and lows were much lower).
So, how should I sum up 88 Minutes? I’m not sure. I suppose I could recommend that you go see it, but walk out right just shy of the ending, go home, and make up your own conclusion. Chances are, if you don’t normally walk around on all fours, you’ll be able to come up with one better than that which you would have witnessed had you stayed put in the theater. If you can adhere to that suggestion, I think you’ll enjoy 88 Minutes, and should give it a whirl.