88 Minutes (2008)

Director: Jon Avnet

Starring: Al Pacino, Alicia Witt, Leelee Sobieski, Amy Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger, Benjamin McKenzie, Neil McDonough

Al Pacino… The master. Le maître. El maestro. Der Meister. Dominus. No matter what the language, no words are truly sufficient to explain the respect I have for this man. For close to 25 years, I’ve been able to call him my favorite actor. I’ll watch anything he’s in… except for “Gigli.” Nothing will ever possess me to go anywhere near that movie. Like anyone else, Pacino’s career has not been without its ups and downs. He was at his finest in the 1970’s with “The Godfather” Parts I & II, “…And Justice for All,” “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” The 1990’s were pretty good for him, too. That was the decade where he (finally) was presented with the Oscar he should have won for any and all of the aforementioned films. He also made the crime thriller “Heat” in 1995, alongside two of my other favorites: Robert De Niro and Natalie Portman. Of course, like anyone with a long and distinguished career, Pacino has not gone without his share of forgettable or otherwise bad movies. Most would probably have to think hard to be able to name any movie he did in the 1980’s besides “Scarface.” Similarly, the 2000’s saw Pacino doing a lot of movies with scripts that are clearly beneath him. One such movie, which I would have ignored completely had it not been for his name being on the marquee, is 2008’s “88 Minutes.”

Nine years after being convicted of one of the Seattle Slayer killings, Jon Forster (Neil McDonough)’s execution date is rapidly approaching, but he’s not going down without a fight. Protesting his innocence, Forster seeks to discredit the testimony that put him behind bars. He may have a case, as there are more dead bodies piling up in the style attributed to the Seattle Slayer, murders he cannot possibly have committed from his current location. At the same time, forensic psychatrist/college professor Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) receives a phone message telling him he has 88 minutes to live. Whomever this person is, they have knowledge of a life-altering event in Gramm’s past, and they have a connection to Forster other than copying his killing methods. The person ends each phone call with the words “Tick-tock, Doc,” the very words that Forster taunted Gramm with nine years earlier. Tagging along with Gramm is Kim Cummings (Alicia Witt), a teaching assistant in his psychology class. As the calls continue, Gramm becomes suspicious of everyone in his class except for Kim, who puts her life on the line time and time again for this man whom she respects and admires.

Probably the most “clever” tactic that the movie uses is to present the story in real-time. From the moment Gramm receives the first threatening phone call, approximately twenty minutes in, there remains 88 minutes to tell the rest of the story. “88 Minutes” plays like an episode of a TV police drama that you’ve got figured out within the first ten minutes. There isn’t much of a mystery involved here. The list of possible suspects gets whittled down fairly quickly, and in truth it could only ever have been one out of two people. The fatal mistake was casting a recognizable actor in what at first appears to be a minor role. It’s a dead giveaway.

In the acting department, “88 Minutes” is sorely lacking. Most of the cast is forgettable. Alicia Witt’s performance as Kim, while not especially remarkable, is serviceable enough. Neil McDonough’s Forster is like an animal with no teeth or claws. He can pontificate to his heart’s content; it still won’t change the fact that this caged beast is completely pathetic. Al Pacino does the best with what he’s got. In the middle of this beat-the-clock scenario, he’s given one scene in particular that stands out. After paying a taxi cab driver $100 plus tip, Gramm has commandeered the vehicle with its owner remaining in the back seat. A heated discussion between Gramm and Kim about the former being emotionless leads Gramm to stop the car and pay the driver a little something extra to step outside for a moment. What he has to say next is for Kim’s ears only. Gramm tells her, in graphic detail, about the day his baby sister was murdered. This is what ’88 minutes’ means to him. It isn’t the most emotional scene in Pacino’s career, but his delivery of this monologue is handled well enough that we feel Jack Gramm’s heartache, as does Kim.

I would wager, at this point, the question comes to why “88 Minutes” would be worth a look. One surefire way to get something out of the experience is to come in a fan of its lead actor, as did I. If you want a real mystery, but don’t feel much like picking up a book, may I suggest an episode of the BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch? Otherwise, just go along for the ride. “88 Minutes,” although never surprising, is also never dull. Worth a rental, or perhaps stumble across it as you’re channel surfing, which is what I ended up doing. Infinitely more satisfying than blowing ticket money on another bloated Michael Bay explosion fest.


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