88 Minutes is Al Pacino's worst film ever.

I've given that sentence its own paragraph, to make sure it sinks in all the way. In fact, I'll do so again:

88 Minutes is Al Pacino's worst film. Ever.

In this particular film, Pacino plays Dr. Jack Gramm, a forensic psychiatrist whose testimony was instrumental in the 1997 conviction (we know it's 1997 because of the inordinately stilted conversation about Princess Diana's death that opens the film, courtesy of the Two Worst Actresses in Cinema History) of serial rapist, torturer and murderer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), AKA "The Seattle Slayer". Nine years later - that is, 2006 - that is, the year the film was supposed to be released until an ashamed TriStar Pictures shelved it - Forster is just one unlikely appeal away from getting put to death, Gramm is still a police consultant as well as an arrogant psychology professor at Seattle's Obviously Fictional University. On the day of Forster's presumed execution, Gramm - while fielding awkward questions from his students and the cops about whether Forster was, like, guilty guilty after a shiny new dead body shows up killed in the Slayer's distinctive method- receives a Mysterious Phone Call telling him that he will be dead in 88 minutes.

Thus begins the epic quest to solve one of the absolutely stupidest mysteries ever to receive studio financing and a legitimate theatrical release in this country, although God bless the good folks at TriStar who tried to keep the second half of that sentence from coming true. It's evident from the beginning that Forster is orchestrating the whole thing using a person close to Gramm to do his killing and set up his death traps, and that this person would be one of the semi-famous faces dotted throughout the exposition: his secretary Shelly (Amy Brenneman), his T.A. Kim (Alicia Witt), his FBI buddy Frank Parks (William Forsythe), dean Carol Johnson (Deborah Kara Unger), his students Lauren (Leelee Sobieski) and Mike (Benjamin McKenzie, who would still have been "Ryan from The O.C." if the film had been released on schedule). I admire, legitimately, that the film never for a second asks us to consider that Gramm might actually be the culprit, something that every single character accuses him of at one point; I also admire, ironically, that every single character other than Gramm is set up to be a red herring, some of them multiple times.

Screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson - whose career, I'm terribly excited to observe, has included both of the decade-later direct-to-video sequels to K-9, although not K-9 itself - commits a great many sins against the art form, but I think the one that pissed me off the most was the incredibly unfair way he plays around with his killer's identity. We know damn good and well that it's going to be one of those people, or one of the two ancillary red herrings who are both killed off well before the third act revs up (I mean, they could always go with the classic "somebody we've never seen or heard about before" ending perfected by the most bottom-feeding of '80s horror films, but even 88 Minutes is classier than that), so to keep us in suspense [sic] about what's going on, every single character is made to seem equally threatening by use of some truly shameless dramatic close-ups and musical stings in minor keys. Then, the killer turns out to be the person who lied about every single aspect of their existence in a way that doesn't remotely come across as possible, but by that point the only people who care are the agoraphobes who can't bear the thought of leaving the theater. The point being, Thompson could have just as easily tossed all the names into a hat and plucked one - hell, maybe that's exactly what he did - if when all was said and done the plan was to pull "secret crazy identity" out of his ass.

Meanwhile, Pacino has to maneuver around some considerable absurdities, such as the incredible contrivance at the center of the film, the 88-minute death clock that never really turns into what the filmmakers wanted it to be, both because the actor seems a bit more annoyed than nervous and because of the many attempts made on his life that would cut the clock off long before the 88 minutes were up. And thirdly, because it seems weird that he could crisscross Seattle three times in 88 minutes, and so we must conclude that the film actually takes place over about three hours. Other absurdities include just about every scene in which Pacino has to talk about the increasingly baroque theories his character brings up for how this massive conspiracy was carried off. My second-favorite scene in the film (after the gleefully awful opening*) consists of Gramm suggesting that he was framed by having his semen siphoned out of a dead hooker's vagina and placed inside a dead student, upon which William Forsythe comes just about as close as you possibly can to turning to the camera and asking the audience's forgiveness.

I'll give the film this much: it's not Al Pacino's worst performance. It's very bad, and his giant hair doesn't help matters. But except for the scene where his Dark Secret comes out, he never goes all-out with the scenery-chewing. Which might not actually be in the movie's favor, now that I think about it. But really, it's hard to fault the acting overmuch. These people were not given much of anything to work with, and I do appreciate how the revealed killer starts vamping for no other reason than to really bring home the whole "I was lying! I'm not [person], I'm an Ee-vil Killer!!!1!" thing.

About director Jon Avnet, I will note two things: he has what seems to be a personal vendetta against keeping the stated time consistent, in this movie about the passage of time (it all adds up to about 80 minutes, but erratically - e.g. five movie minutes pass in two real minutes, then three movie minutes pass in six real minutes, so it's eight minutes, but the "wrong" eight minutes); he will this fall be directing Pacino in his first legitimate onscreen pairing with Robert De Niro, Righteous Kill.

I'll bet I could have saved us all a lot of trouble if I'd just done a shorter: This is absolutely the worst film released in the first third of 2008. It is imperative that you see it at once.


*In 1997. Shortly after Princess Diana died in a car crash.**
**That may or may not have been a Royal conspiracy.†
†Brilliant mind for expositional detail, that Gary Scott Thompson.