Saggy, Beat-Up 60-Something Pacino Still Sizzles as Sleuth

sarris 88mins2v Saggy, Beat Up 60 Something Pacino Still Sizzles as Sleuth88 MINUTES
Running Time 108 minutes
Written by Gary Scott Thompson
Directed by Jon Avnet
Starring Al Pacino, Leelee Sobieski, Alicia Witt, Benjamin McKenzie

Jon Avnet’s 88 Minutes, from a screenplay by Gary Scott Thompson, turns out to be a noirish mystery with more red herrings than are to be found at a fishmonger’s convention. That is to say that even when the mystery is finally solved, many loose ends are left dangling, which is not at all unusual in this period of catering to the youth market’s craving for chaotic confusion. Not that it matters that much, but the production notes tell us that though the story of 88 Minutes is set in the city of Seattle, it was shot in and around the greater Vancouver area over 39 days.

It is great fun to watch the matchless Al Pacino, now visibly in his late 60s, summon all his histrionic gifts as Jack Gramm, a forensic psychiatrist and profiler for the F.B.I. who suddenly finds himself in danger, as an unknown caller tells him he has 88 minutes to live. In the course of these 88 minutes he is shot at, nearly run over by an automobile and a motorcycle, and ingeniously framed for a murder he didn’t commit. Or did he? We are never quite sure until fairly late in the film that he is as innocent of wrongdoing as he claims he is.

Besides Mr. Pacino’s presence in the cast, the other great asset of the film is the gallery of young, beautiful and competent women who surround Gramm, like moths around an illuminated light bulb, as Girl Fridays, students in his university psychiatry class, and academic and F.B.I. colleagues. Among the charismatic enchantresses who cross Gramm’s path are Alicia Witt as Kim Cummings, Leelee Sobieski as Lauren Douglas, Amy Brenneman as Shelly Barnes and Deborah Kara Unger as Carol Lynn Johnson. I mention only their names because to describe their actual functions is to give part of the trick plot away.

The main narrative begins on the eve of a serial killer’s scheduled execution for a crime that he was convicted of nine years before, when Gramm provided the clinching forensic testimony against the accused, Neil McDonough’s charismatic Jon Forster. The convicted killer’s way with women both incriminates him and enables him, even from his Death Row confinement, to orchestrate a campaign of vilification against Gramm as a lying opportunist, and even to inspire a copy-cat murder with the same modus operandi as the one for which he was convicted by a jury, despite there having been no other concrete evidence of Forster’s crime.

We are led to infer that Forster’s appeals process has taken nine years to be exhausted. Yet the new murder makes Gramm himself a possible suspect because of ingeniously planted clues by someone close to both Forster and Gramm. But who? This is the question haunting Gramm as he tracks down every lead to one dead end after another. Even the police and the F.B.I. are becoming suspicious of the drumbeat of sensational media disclosures tilted in favor of Forster and against Gramm.

Along the way, revelations concerning the betrayal of Gramm’s confidential files by an assistant’s lesbian crush; of Gramm’s notorious drinking episodes with female pickups; and the suspicions fostered among Gramm’s brightest students from their Death House interviews with Forster lead inexorably to a final perilous encounter between Gramm and his secret tormentor. When that climactic final confrontation occurs, Gramm has the last laugh on Forster after 88 minutes of excruciating escalation of Gramm’s and the audience’s paranoia.

The multiple female participants in 88 Minutes seem to have been influenced less by current American male-oriented action movies than by television serials like House M.D., Bones, Boston Legal, Grey’s Anatomy, and the three CSI and Law & Order crime shows, with their full complement of mind-over-matter attractive professional women. As for Mr. Pacino, I have been avidly following his career ever since his days and nights in an Off Broadway production of Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx. In those days, fierce debates raged over the two Italian-American wunderkinds of the Off Broadway scene, Frank Langella and Mr. Pacino, and the jury is still out on that one. But as David Thomson sagely notes in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film with his largely rhapsodic commentary on Mr. Pacino, it is close to ridiculous that Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro won Oscars in Francis Coppola’s Godfather trilogy while Mr. Pacino, who both dominated and defined all three parts into a unified whole, got zilch. Then, ironically, he received his only Oscar for an inferior “stunt” simulation of blindness in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (1992). But then, after seven previous fruitless nominations, he had been poised to join the exclusive Richard Burton-Peter O’Toole-Deborah Kerr futility club that seems to prefer foreign-born performers over our own natives. Of course, their unjustly unrewarded predecessors, Charles Chaplin and Greta Garbo, caused the original Oscar bar to be set so high that it has become almost an honor to lose the grand prize.

In any event, 88 Minutes will add a little more luster to a career that has not been adequately appreciated perhaps because of the suspiciously seductive power of a little man with an outsize talent. On the male side of 88 Minutes, William Forsythe as Gramm’s FBI contact, and Benjamin McKenzie as a student sleuth who incurs Gramm’s wrath, deserve special mention.