For '88 Minutes,' Al Pacino hams it up

The only reason to watch this thriller about a psychiatrist trying to find a killer is to watch the veteran actor have a ball.

chris helcermanas-benge/columbia
Sneak peek: In '88 Minutes,' Al Pacino plays a psychiatrist on the trail of a killer.

Al Pacino loves to act. He loves to act in good movies, in bad movies, in mediocre movies. He loves to act on stage, on screen, in television. I'm sure he loves to act in his car and in the shower.

The upside of all this is that Pacino, given the right role, is probably better than anybody else in the business at his craft. The downside is that, given the wrong role, he's a Grade-A, bone-in honeybaked ham.

"88 Minutes," which unfortunately has a running time of 105 minutes, is an example of the latter. It's not just ham we're talking about here – it's an entire deli platter. Pacino has never been the most selective of actors – for every "Godfather" and "Dog Day Afternoon" there's an equal number of stinkers, such as "The Devil's Advocate." But here's the thing about Pacino: He's often at his most entertaining when he's chewing the scenery (including the drapes, the floorboards, the window frames, the couches). Watching a great actor raise the roof is often more enjoyable than watching an OK actor deliver the goods.

In "88 Minutes," Pacino plays Dr. Jack Gramm, a Seattle forensic psychiatrist whose testimony led to the conviction of a serial killer, Jon Forster, whose grisly handiwork we are introduced to in the film's opening minutes. Nine years later, on the eve of Forster's scheduled execution, a copycat killing suddenly casts doubt on Forster's guilt as he attempts a stay of execution.

Although the media outlets and the FBI begin to have their doubts about Forster's guilt, Jack is unmoved. He's seen these creatures before and knows their minds. But Forster knows his, too. Harkening back to a murder in Jack's family from years ago, Forster – or somebody – calls him on his cellphone and delivers the message that the great Dr. Gramm has 88 minutes to live.

Jack seems unperturbed by this cryptic little tactic and sets out to track down the copycat who, he believes, is acting on orders from Forster. Here's where the movie goes into loopy overdrive. Virtually everybody involved in Jack's life – his graduate students, his FBI buddies, his lady friends, men friends, parking attendants, door men – comes under suspicion. There are so many red herrings in "88 Minutes" that I'm shocked the filmmakers didn't set a scene in Pike's Market.

Director Jon Avnet has such a tin ear for the way people speak that, at times, I thought I was watching a movie made by someone whose first language is not English. (Pacino obviously disagrees, since Avnet's next film will star both Pacino and Robert De Niro.)

This business of the 88 minutes ticking away is a pale imitation of the old "High Noon" ploy of playing out suspense in real time. After a while, though, I began to take a perverse pleasure in wallowing in the awfulness of it all.

The bodies pile up along with the whopping implausibilities. He lives in such a splendiferous aerie that you wonder if Avnet is trying to clue us that Jack is on the take.

A lot of good actors – including Amy Brenneman, Deborah Kara Unger, and Alicia Witt – are mired in this mess, but Pacino, ever the trouper, soldiers on. He's playing for keeps instead of playing around. A lesser actor, or at least a less-intense actor, would have let the audience in on this folly with a wink or a smirk. Not Pacino. He loves acting too much.

• Rated R for disturbing violent content, brief nudity, and language.

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