A top-notch cast of dramatic actors cannot overcome thankless material in "88 Minutes." Directed by Jon Avnet (1996's "Up Close and Personal") and written by Gary Scott Thompson (2001's "The Fast and the Furious
"), this is one of those part-taut, part-ridiculous thrillers where time is of the essence and everyone is a suspect. The gimmick of being set in real time is effective for a while, but then loses its way as the contrivances build up and the plot gimmicks overcome plausibility and character motivation. Despite being notably flawed, it is actually quite surprising that the film has been in release-date limbo for over a year; undiscriminating audiences and die-hard fans of lead star Al Pacino might enjoy themselves quite a bit.
On the eve of the execution of convicted Seattle Slayer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), another body is found dead matching his original modus operandi
. The victim turns out to be one of the students of forensic psychiatrist and college professor Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino), who was responsible for helping to convict Forster. Before Jack has had a chance to properly process this information, he receives a call on his cell informing him that he has eighty-eight minutes left to live. As the clock ticks down, Jack desperately tries to unravel the mystery surrounding his own death sentence and figure out who the culprit is.
"88 Minutes" is fairly riveting for its first forty-five minutes as Jack is progressively and dangerously toyed with by an unseen assailant and virtually anyone around him is set up as a potential villain. An extended sequence set in the college car park following a campus bomb threat is especially tense and well-constructed, with Jack's paranoia getting the best of him. By the time Jack has called upon his admiring teaching assistant Kim Cummings (Alicia Witt) to assist him in his investigation, the movie starts spinning its wheels too much. Scripting is often stilted in the second hourwith about thirty minutes left until judgment, it's a bit far-fetched for Kim to be biding their time making small talk with Jack about why he never got married or had kidsand the climax in which the bad guy is revealed is predictable and leaves the viewer feeling empty.
In one of his more understated performances, Al Pacino (2007's "Ocean's Thirteen
") is faultless as protagonist Dr. Jack Gramm, a man whose own past involving the years-ago murder of his younger sister comes back to haunt him. Amy Brenneman (2005's "Nine Lives") is very good as Jack's devoted assistant Shelly Barnes, making the most of a slim role, while Benjamin McKenzie (2005's "Junebug
") continues to prove himself as a better actor than he is given credit for as inquisitive student Mike Stempt. McKenzie, along with the rest of the supporting playersAlicia Witt (2005's "The Upside of Anger
") as Kim Cummings; Leelee Sobieski (2006's "The Wicker Man
") as another of Jack's students, Lauren Douglas, and Deborah Kara Unger (2005's "White Noise
") as college dean Carol Johnsonare given the chore of having to appear suspicious at all times.
"88 Minutes" keeps the viewer at least mildly involved in the high-stakes, life-or-death goings-on, but what it adds up to is less than the sum of its parts. The character of Kim becomes something of an ongoing confidante to Jack for the sole reason of giving him someone to talk to. Otherwise, the movie would be but a series of cell phone interchanges, which still grow tedious as the running time thinly stretches itself out to 108 minutes. "88 Minutes" ultimately could have used more innovation and less strained obviousness as it worked its way toward an underwhelming conclusion.