Pacino Psych Thriller Dead on Arrival

    {grate 2} The opening of Jon Avnet’s psych thriller plops a drunken Al
    Pacino in the middle of a crowded college-age bar, where he shimmy-shakes to a
    clubbed-up remix of Usher’s “Yeah.” For the next “88 Minutes,” he’ll stretch
    his rip ‘n’ roar style as far as it can go, but isn’t mixing Usher and Pacino
    bad enough? The film implodes as time ticks away, failing to drum up enough
    nuggets to tantalize until the inevitable end; we instead do our own countdown,
    wanting to purge ourselves of whatever secret Pacino is chasing.

    The film begins during a let-loose night for Pacino’s Jack
    Gramm, a forensic psychiatrist and college professor who is celebrating the
    impending execution of Jon Forster, who strings up women and bleeds them dry as
    the serial-killing “Seattle Slayer.” Gramm’s testimony as a psychiatrist was
    key to locking Forster away, so while the tipsy prof rubs elbows barside with
    enamored 20-year-old students, Forster feeds his lust for vengeful
    machinations. Life unravels for Gramm when, the next day, the FBI comes
    knocking, his students start dying and Forster receives a stay of execution.
    And of course, the biggest problem is the call with the gravely voice: “You
    have 88 minutes to live. Tick-tock.”

    As a filmic device, Avnet’s countdown does little to tense
    up the drama or animate the characters. Gramm keeps the death threat to himself
    for much of the film, zipping around Seattle’s
    dreary sceneries in a scramble for clues. The supporting characters zip too,
    but only around Gramm himself, needlessly pecking at him like flies at a trap
    before they get ensnared in strings of glue and glop.

    It’s hard not to be mesmerized as Pacino navigates the
    screen. His presence is absolute in “88 Minutes,” straddling every scene and
    nearly every line. Avnet doesn’t leash the hot-blooded Pacino, letting him
    throw his impulsive stagecraft around, particularly in gleeful moments when
    Gramm faces down Forster. But the best Pacino has always proved to be a more
    muted one, when he was icy as Michael in “The Godfather” or calculating as Will
    Dormer in “Insomnia.” Avnet’s Pacino lacks that underhanded fortitude, partly
    because his character doesn’t take the time to sit and stew, but mostly because
    he devours the film’s weaker side characters with his frenetic, all-engulfing
    aura.

    Avnet resurrects bad TV with the supporting cast, bringing
    in Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy”) and Alicia Witt (“Law & Order: Criminal
    Intent”) as Pacino’s partners in his race against time. The two give terribly
    coined performances: Brenneman as Gramm’s gay secretary Shelly Barnes and Witt
    as his cutesy student Kim Cummings. More characters come into play as the clock
    ticks on and Gramm’s suspect list grows longer. The culprit could be the other
    lesbian Lauren Douglas, Gramm’s sharpest student, played by Leelee Sobieski. Or
    it could be his most outspoken one, Mike Stempt played by another bad TV
    veteran Benjamin McKenzie (“The OC”). Even with the structure of time, the
    film’s many red herrings writhe around each other in too jumbled a manner. By
    the end of “88 Minutes,” Avnet’s big reveal halts a ride that started oddly,
    dipped around in the middle, then slowed to a stop — it’s not the track a
    thriller should follow.

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