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You'll want these 88 Minutes back

Wasting time

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The thriller 88 Minutes actually runs 108 minutes, a cruel trick to play on moviegoers who check their watches at the 80-minute mark and erroneously believe they're on the verge of being set free. A film so moldy that it was released on DVD in some foreign territories as far back as February 2007, this tarnished star vehicle is finally being dumped into U.S. theaters for its 15 minutes of fame. Fifteen minutes? Given its gloomy prospects at scoring with either audiences or critics, better make that 15 seconds.

As laughable as any suspense flick that's come down the pike in a while, 88 Minutes stars Al Pacino (mercifully keeping the "Hoo-ah!" showboating to a minimum) as Dr. Jack Gramm, a college professor and forensic psychiatrist whose expertise has repeatedly helped the FBI in nailing down serial killers. Kicking off in 1997, the film finds Gramm providing the invaluable testimony which convinces a jury that Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) is the "Seattle Slayer" responsible for the grisly killings taking place around the city. Cut to nine years later, and we find Forster is finally scheduled to be executed. But a new rash of similarly styled bloodbaths has Seattle's finest perplexed. Are these murders the work of a copycat killer? Is Forster really innocent, and the real killer has never been caught? Is Forster masterminding the proceedings from his front-row seat on Death Row, with an accomplice on the outside doing his dirty deeds? Or is it possible the real killer is Gramm himself?

Although some of the other characters suspect Gramm might really be the sicko, the movie never allows that suspicion to take root in our minds; after all, the title comes from the fact that a menacing voice over his cell phone informs him he only has 88 minutes to live. "Tick tock, doc," the caller repeats during every phone conversation, a pithy catchphrase that's annoying upon its first use and becomes the verbal equivalent of Chinese water torture during its subsequent utterances.

By removing Gramm from the list of suspects, that leaves us only, oh, 126 other characters from which to sniff out the actual villain. That's because Jon Avnet's clumsy direction dictates that practically every actor who walks in front of the camera lens, right down to bit players, try to act as suspicious and menacing as possible. That works OK for select characters, not so much for little old ladies who are simply passing by in the street. Even the minor character of a front-desk clerk is required to act as twitchy as Anthony Perkins in Psycho, a silly tactic since it's obvious he's not going to have anything to do with the rest of the picture (several characters briefly appear and then disappear without a trace, perhaps suggesting heavy post-production editing). It's usually fun when a murder-mystery offers several suspects, but this goes beyond serving up a few red herrings; here, we get trout, tilapia and mahi mahi as well.

Sweeping aside the obvious plants, the suspects include Gramm's teaching assistant Kim (Alicia Witt), moody student Lauren (Leelee Sobieski), badgering student Mike (Benjamin McKenzie), Kim's jealous boyfriend Guy LaForge (Stephen Moyer), Gramm's dedicated right-hand woman Shelly (Amy Brenneman), the dean of the university (Deborah Kara Unger) and veteran cop Frank Parks. Actually, Parks is one of the few not built up as a suspect, but since he's played by perennial villain William Forsythe, we'll add him onto the list. In fact, about the only folks missing from the roster of suspects are Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum, but maybe I blinked and missed their fleeting appearances.

For all the film's huffing and puffing and attempting to throw audience members off guard, the end result is still a continent away from the brain-twister likes of Ten Little Indians or even The Usual Suspects. One's familiarity with thrillers of this nature may determine how quickly one can figure out the identity of the villain; I sussed it out before the halfway mark. And with the mystery out of the way, I was then left with the opportunity to more fully enjoy the film's unexpected comedy quotient. There are several chuckle-worthy moments throughout, but I especially liked the scene where Gramm has to dive out of the way of a fire truck barreling toward the scene of a potential fire. The sequence is so incompetently staged that it initially appears as if the killer has gotten hold of a fire engine and is employing it as a weapon against Gramm. But nope, it's merely a fireman whose driving skills are apparently so poor, he doubtless runs over and kills as many pedestrians as he saves tenants from burning buildings.

Speaking of driving, screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson previously wrote The Fast and the Furious, so that probably explains why Gramm spends a good amount of time driving a taxi (don't ask) across the city ferreting for clues. But Thompson also wrote the straight-to-DVD sequels to K-9 -- K-911 and K-9: P.I. -- so he's also quite familiar with dogs. Rest assured, 88 Minutes joins the pack of movie mongrels.

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