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Zettel Film Reviews » 88 Minutes – why is Al Pacino like a bus?

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88 Minutes – why is Al Pacino like a bus?

early morning shoot

88 Minutes – John Avnet

It isn’t hard to catch Al Pacino over-acting: but it is very hard to catch him acting. The best proof of the first is that after seven Oscar nominations for several of the best character portrayals in movies – Michael Corleone (twice), Frank Serpico, Sonny Wortzik (Dog Day Afternoon), Ricky Roma (Glengarry Glenross) – he finally got an Oscar for his wonderfully hammy OTT performance as the blind Frank Slade in Scent Of A Woman (1992). In contrast his portrayal of the gradual, progressive corruption of a soul as the young Michael Corleone from The Godfather to The Godfather – Part II is one of the definitive demonstrations of the art of cinematic acting.

My point is that Pacino has so much talent, skill and insight into the essence of movie-making that he can switch into bravura mode to turn dross if not into gold, then at least into something entertaining enough to pass muster. But when he has a character of some real complexity in a film with serious intent and a script and director to match, then the inner stillness, the range of emotions he can reveal through just his eyes or almost imperceptible nuances of movement and gesture, then his ‘acting’ becomes being before the camera rendering ‘technique’ utterly invisible.

Perhaps bad acting is contagious for in 88 Minutes Pacino is surrounded by acting that varies wildly from the embarrassingly bad (Leelee Sobieski as Lauren Douglas) to the irreducibly mediocre. It took me a while to pick up on what is wrong with 88 Minutes. It is a very plotty, at times dotty whodunnitty thriller. The thing is about whodunnit’s they work better in novels where language can create endless false trails of facts and events without having to actually ‘cheat’. There are relatively few outstanding ‘whodunnit’ movies. The Usual Suspects and in a way the Sixth Sense are perhaps the best in recent years – but both use the ‘grammar’ of film to create their brilliant denouement surprises. They succeed by knowing how we will ‘read’ the literality of the image and exploiting that fact to deceive us through believable characters we accept.

88 Minutes in contrast is hack work: characters are driven by the requirements of a plot low on imagination and bereft of credibility. As he has done so many times before Pacino provides a central core to the film that at times almost makes you believe in it. Almost – but not quite given the standard of acting around him. It’s a bit like the comment Ilie Nastase once made about the then invincible Bjorn Borg – “we’re all just playing tennis – I don’t know what he’s playing.”

It wasn’t until I researched this review that the penny finally dropped – from Director Avnet through the whole cast, even to Producers, almost everyone in the film comes from TV. Pacino is the only genuine film actor on show. And it shows. Shows too much. Despite many similarities, TV acting demands that a performance ‘projects’ to break out of the domestication of the constricting TV ‘frame’. This means TV actors have to do more, often signal more, to get across. Transfer that technique to images 30 feet high and all the artifice shows. Everyone except Pacino in 88 minutes is TV acting; and to return to my opening point, there are two very bad short scenes where we really do catch him ‘acting’ perhaps trapped into it by the character and actor he is playing off.

Pacino plays forensic psychologist Jack Gramm regularly offering confident and authoritative expert opinion in court. His passion and commitment to this partly derives from the murder of his sister many years ago for which he feels guilty as he left her briefly alone. Serial killer Jon Foster was sentenced to death some years before by a combination of eye-witness testimony backed up by Frank’s firm, unequivocal assessment of Foster.

With some pretty impressive ‘big hair’ from the make-up department Pacino just about belies his 68 years and convinces as a serial womaniser mostly of students in his University classes. When a series of killings begins perfectly emulating Foster’s uniquely nasty murderous MO involving pulleys and torture, doubt is expressed about his guilt and therefore the soundness of Jack’s professional judgement. Jack then receives a series of phone calls telling him that he has 88 minutes to live. With some paint-by-numbers sleuthing and a series of pretty young, very young,..er too young girls to help him Frank tries to prove his belief that Foster is orchestrating these new murders from within prison in order to raise doubts about Frank’s testimony and therefore his conviction. With his execution now imminent, after the usual years of legalistic procrastination, the stakes for Foster could not be higher.

Lots of ‘I am Spartacus’ moments inject a kind of bewilderment rather than genuine surprise. The identity of the killer is finally revealed exactly 88 minutes into the movie: sorry Mr Avnet but this run-of-the-mill stuff is no High Noon and with respect, you’re no Fred Zinneman. But I guess it’s a nice enough little touch. There is another more gruesome significance to the 88 figure as well.

Most of this plays modestly well with a certain amount of pace – but the credibility of both plot and character veers wildly from the occasional moments of real tension to the floridly melodramic moment of denouement and a risible attempt to add credibility to motivation. At 108 minutes this is really a plotted-to-fit-the-TV-schedules programme-filler. Not un-entertaining but only just breaking through the straight to DVD route.

Coda

Why is Al Pacino like a bus? Well you wait for a Pacino film for years (5 years since The Recruit, 4 since The Merchant of Venice and two since the invisible Two For The Money) then 3 come along in a row – Oceans Thirteen just over 12 months ago and now the almost double release of Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes. These last two are intriguing: 88 was expected to be completed in 2005 but was eventually released in 2007 but not in the UK. Now it seems to have been marketed on the coat-tails of Righteous Kill. With seven of the same producers, the same Director and cinematographer, 88 minutes looks suspiciously like a ‘pension’ movie – made for the money cashing in on the Pacino name. Unfortunately, despite the heavily hyped publicity, though Righteous Kill will probably do well at the box office with the De Niro name to enhance Pacino’s it’s a big disappointment. I’ll come back to RT another time as I fell sleep when I saw it and must give it a better chance. But another Heat it ain’t and I’ve always thought that a bit over-rated.

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