I’m starting to think 88 Minutes was designed as some sort of gauntlet for Al Pacino’s talent. It seems like someone actually sat down and said, “Hey, let’s give Al this really weak script, send him out of make-up with his hair too poufy, and see if we can throw him off his game. Ooh! And tell Alicia Witt and Leelee Sobieski to check their talent (if they have any) at the door. Oh my gosh, and even better? We’ll use Vancouver as a stand-in for Seattle in such an obvious, idiotic way that Washingtonians will actually be left smacking themselves on the head! Woo ha ha ha. Just let him try to save this one!” Does Al Pacino rise to the challenge? I would argue that he does, but then again, I think he could fold laundry and make it look interesting.
Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino) is a forensic psychiatrist and university professor who has been instrumental in putting away the Seattle Slayer (Neal McDonough). The day of the Seattle Slayer’s execution begins like any other for Jack. He wakes up in a beautiful stranger’s bed, then he heads to the office, where the sister of one of the Slayer’s victims presents him with a plate of cookies. He was out celebrating the night before, and the execution will undoubtedly bring some sense of closure to the whole Seattle Slayer ordeal. Trouble is, the murders haven’t stopped since the Slayer went to Walla Walla. Worse yet, someone is trying to pin one of them on Jack.
Shortly after learning that he’s under investigation for murder, Jack receives a phone call saying he’s only got 88 minutes to live. Unsurprisingly, he’s a bit discombobulated as he begins the day’s lecture, but that’s no reason for the movie to get all discombobulated with him. The professor/class banter is stilted and unbelievable, and when the students finally learn that one of their classmates was murdered (in the signature manner of The Slayer) no one seems to be especially upset. With a Valley Girl tone of irritation, Jack’s teaching assistant Kim (Alicia Witt) hisses, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” Then Lauren (Leelee Sobieski) looks at her professor all doe-eyed and says, “Gosh Dr. Gramm, does that mean we’re in danger?” Right away you know they’re either in on the whole thing, or they are two of the worst young actresses in Hollywood. As it turns out, it’s a little bit of both.
By now the clock is seriously ticking, but Jack continues to meander through his daily routine, scratching his head and trying to figure how the Seattle Slayer has managed to engineer this whole thing from his prison cell. Indeed, when someone is watching your every move with the intent to kill, it’s always wise to behave in an absolutely predictable manner. In fact, why not just paint a bull’s-eye on your back? Though ominous things keep happening, there is no sense of urgency until the last ten minutes of the film, and it doesn’t help that Jack spends a good portion of the movie with Kim at his side. There’s a half-assed sidebar about her possessive ex-husband, and out of nowhere she peels off her jacket and announces that she’s always had a crush on Jack. He’s in the middle of opening a suspicious package, and the look he gives her is priceless—sort of a combination of boredom and disbelief. Why in the world would she bring this up now? Either she’s trying to distract him, or she’s the stupidest girl who’s ever lived. Poor Alicia Witt looks all uncomfortable in her skimpy top, and both actors seem to be thinking, “What the hell?”
If you think about anything in 88 Minutes too long, you’ll inevitably wind up asking the same question. Odd little continuity errors abound—like Pacino opening a door and coming out on the other side with a haircut—and the characters themselves are made to be inconsistent for the sake of the plot. Wouldn’t a clever forensic psychiatrist see right through Lauren, just as the audience does? If Kim had any human qualities, wouldn’t she be shaken by the events unfolding around her? Even more irksome, the movie is supposed to be set in Seattle, but all they did was slap Washington license plates on the cars. The striping on the roads is all wrong, the University of Northwestern Washington doesn’t exist, and furthermore, I recognized the street sign for Hastings from 21 Jump Street, which was also filmed in Vancouver. Note to filmmakers: if filming in Seattle is cost-prohibitive, just go ahead and set your movie in Vancouver. You’re not fooling anybody.
88 Minutes is basically a very flimsy movie full of loose ends. The final scene sort of saves it, but the real reason to watch is to see Al in action. He still looks hot dodging bullets with girls, and he does the best anyone could do with such feeble material. Amy Brenneman is also spot-on as Jack’s faithful assistant. Somehow or other, the two of them walk right through this bad movie gauntlet without lowering themselves to its level.
Bonus features include an alternate ending that expands just slightly on the original, commentary by director Jon Avnet, and a conversation with Avnet on the making of 88 Minutes. I’m not sure why the movie turned out so crappily, because Avnet has a lot of great things to say about himself, his directorial skills, and his resourcefulness. He stops just short of hugging himself and planting rows of kisses up and down his own arms. Perhaps we could blame the film’s shortcomings on a certain person’s overconfidence?
Far more engaging is “The Character Within” featurette, in which Pacino (now sporting a perfectly normal hairdo) humbly discusses his take on Jack Gramm. He saw the character as a somewhat haunted figure who lacked an intense desire to save his own life and who would have been accustomed to receiving threats and solving crimes. This goes a long way to explain Gramm’s lack of urgency, but I’m not sure what arguments can be made for the odd reactions of other characters or for the off-key pacing of the film itself. At least somebody in this movie knew why he was doing what he was doing.