88 Minutes

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So here’s Al Pacino in yet another mediocre drama, his new stock in trade. “88 Minutes” affords him plenty of opportunities to yell and shoot guns at people, so I guess he’s happy. Appearing in a film like this must be the actor’s equivalent of eating ice cream and watching “Law & Order” on a Friday night. You know you could be doing something better with your life, but eh, this is easier.

Pacino plays Dr. Jack Gramm, a forensic psychologist and Seattle college professor who frequently testifies in criminal trials regarding the relative craziness of defendants. One of the killers he helped put away, Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), is about to be executed, but he’s proclaiming his innocence right up to the end. Through a constant series of jailhouse interviews — apparently the news media has unfettered access to Death Row inmates — he insists publicly that Jack is a fraud who perjured himself on the stand.

Just in time to cast some doubt on Forster’s guilt, a murder occurs that has all the signs of Forster’s methods — except, obviously, that it wasn’t Forster who did it. Is it a copycat? Or does this mean Forster was innocent all along?

Jack is convinced Forster is guilty and that he had a hand in the new murder. The fact that the victim was a student of Jack’s confirms (to him) that something personal is afoot. Then Jack gets a phone call from someone whose voice has been disguised to sound like the villain in the “Saw” movies, telling him he has 88 minutes to live. As he scurries around town trying to get to the bottom of things, he continues to get harassing phone calls informing him how much time he has left. That has got to be annoying.

His 88 minutes do not unfold in real time, though there are several minutes-long chunks of unedited action, some of which is punctuated by genuinely interesting developments. All of it benefits from Pacino’s presence, which is always enjoyable even when the movie he’s in isn’t very good.

One thing I like about the film, written by Gary Scott Thompson (“The Fast and the Furious”) and directed by Jon Avnet (“Fried Green Tomatoes”), is the way it continues to expand its cast of characters: Jack’s faithful teaching assistant (Alicia Witt), his lesbian secretary (Amy Brenneman), a skeptical student (Benjamin McKenzie), a devoted student (Leelee Sobieski), a mysterious man on a motorcycle, etc. The regular introduction of new characters is mostly a ploy to keep us guessing about the bad guy’s identity (which doesn’t work, by the way), but it also helps keep up the film’s momentum, which might have stalled if the story were nothing but Jack Gramm barging around barking at FBI agents and such.

But as time passes, the plot gets more and more outrageous, past the point of being a pulpy thriller and well into the territory where you’re embarrassed to be watching it. It culminates in an elaborate James-Bond-villain-style deathtrap, accompanied by a truly hilarious revelation of all the film’s secrets. More than anything else, it plays like a parody of such scenes.

This sucker’s been sitting around for two years and has already played theatrically in a dozen foreign countries. Its U.S. release feels like an obligatory gesture before sending it to DVD — where, truth be told, it should have gone to begin with. It has a nifty middlebrow premise and lively pace, and it’s not unwatchable. For the first hour or so, I wouldn’t even call it bad. But it gets dumber as it goes, and by the end, “bad” is definitely the best word for it. Your best bet is to stick with the ice cream and the “Law & Order.”

C- (1 hr., 47 min.; R, brief nudity, some moderate violence, one F-word.)

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