Al Pacino as Dr. John Gramm
Alicia Witt as Kim Cummings
Amy Brenneman as Shelly Barnes
William Forsythe as Special Agent Frank Parks
Leelee Sobieski as Lauren Douglas
Benjamin McKenzie as Mike Stemp
Deborah Kara Unger as Carol Johnson
Neal McDonough as Jon Forster
Leah Cairns as Sara Pollard
Stephen Moyer as Guy LaForge
The Hollywood style of filmmaking has been widely and often criticized for its focus on style over substance, its obsession with marketing and packaging, trying to boil good stories down to just the right formula of plot points, act beats, story hooks and movie stars. Every so often, a film comes along that defies expectations and makes all those elements work together so seamlessly you can’t help but think maybe those executives know something after all. More often, though, we get a bland piece of formulaic pabulum like “88 Minutes.”
John Gramm (Al Pacino) is a forensic psychiatrist and the FBI’s go-to guy when they need an expert to testify to a killer’s motivations and thought process. When his testimony condemns would-be serial killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), Forster vows revenge, and it looks like he might get it when Gramm begins receiving threatening phone calls claiming he has only 88 minutes to live, despite the fact Forster has been locked away on death row for years.
Directed with unfeeling, uncaring, neutral in every way competence by veteran studio director Jon Avnet (“Up Close and Personal”), “88 Minutes” is a bland a piece of Hollywood dross as has ever been made. I can’t say it’s actually bad, that would require caring about it in some way that is impossible to do.
There has been some thought put into Gramm and his life. He’s afraid of commitment and obsessed with security, escaping into a lonely life surrounded by attractive women he refuses to have any sort of real relationship with and a seemingly infinite number of digital locks. While Gramm himself harbors a lot of Hollywood’s worst clichés for cop characters (afraid of commitment, outside the system, a maverick on the edge) the clues actually do add up to something a bit more than that, some deep emotional wounds of the past. We know because it’s explained to us in the most heavy-handed fashion possible in the films perfect drumbeat of Syd Field style screenwriting: plot point, plot point, character moment, plot point, plot point, character moment.
And when I say character moment, what I really mean is back-story exposition, because the characters are about as flat as they get. What they do is who they are one’s a grad student, one’s a lesbian assistant, one’s a college dean, and that is the sum total of who they are. They’re descriptors, not people.
It’s no wonder this movie sat on a shelf for two years, I can’t imagine anyone going to see it either. Pacino’s not really the draw he used to be and he’s certainly not doing his best work here. He’s doing his usual wild man routine for most of the film, occasionally giving a glimpse of Gramm’s intellect and tiredness of soul, but only occasionally. The rest of the time it’s all autopilot.
“88 Minutes” is a textbook Hollywood thriller, in the worst possible sense of the phrase. If that’s your thing, more power to you, but there’s got to be better ways to spend your time.