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Imperfect ’88 minutes’ proves satisfying

Al Pacino’s new film, “88 Minutes,” arrived in theaters this month with some bad word-of-mouth. The scuttlebutt was that the film was a bomb. According to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), “88 Minutes” is actually two years old, and when a Hollywood film’s release is postponed that long, it’s rarely a good sign.

But concerns about the entertainment value of “88 Minutes” are unnecessary. While the film doesn’t break new ground, it is an effective thriller, likely to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

At the center of this taut thriller is Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino), a respected forensic psychiatrist and professor.

Gramm’s job is to take the physical evidence found at a crime scene and piece together a “narrative” that can explain the crime.

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In 1997, one of Gramm’s narratives, along with the testimony of an eye-witness, convinced a jury that Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) was the brutal serial killer dubbed the “Seattle Slayer.”

“Tick-tock, Doc, tick-tock,” Forster tells Gramm menacingly, as he is escorted from the courtroom after being found guilty.

The film then leaps forward nine years. Forster is now on death row, but there is a killer on the loose with the same modus operandi as the “Seattle Slayer” – the victims are drugged with an animal tranquilizer, hung upside-down and left to bleed to death – and the killer’s most recent victim is one of Gramm’s students.

Gramm refuses to believe that the murders are proof that the wrong man was convicted or that they are the work of a copycat killer. Instead, he figures that the murderer is an accomplice of Forster’s trying to make it appear that Forster’s protestations of innocence are sincere and that the real “Seattle Slayer” is still out there. The ultimate goal, he suspects, is to spread just enough doubt to get Forster an eleventh-hour stay of execution.

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The story really gets going when Gramm receives a threatening call him that he has only 88 minutes to live. (At first, this might seem like an arbitrary amount of time – Why not make it a full 90 minutes? – but be assured that there is a reason.)

In the following 88 minutes there are additional phone-calls as the killer counts down to Gramm’s death. In one scene, Gramm’s car is vandalized with yet another reminder of how many minutes he has left, but how the killer could be certain that Gramm would discover the graffiti within the appropriate 60-second interval remains unclear. (I would have hedged my bets, “You have approximately 70 to 75 minutes to live – give or take.”)

Aided by a fine script by Gary Scott Thompson, director Jon Avnet creates a palpable sense of tension.

In dealing with a faceless, unknown killer and a series of menacing phone calls, Gramm is forced to suspect almost everyone he knows, including students, a peculiar campus security officer, and even his teaching assistant, Kim Cummings (Alicia Witt), who serves as his partner for much of the film.

The camera places viewers in the same frame of mind as the protagonist. Several times during the course of the film, scenes of Gramm walking across a street or running through a courtyard are filmed from a bird’s-eye-view; these shots add to the feeling that Gramm isn’t really safe anywhere, that his actions are constantly being watched by unseen and unfriendly eyes.

Near its conclusion, when the person who has been using up all of Gramm’s cell phone minutes is finally revealed, the film totters precariously close to one of those hokey endings that mark so many thrillers in the “serial-killer” sub-genre. But the film is saved by one last, suspenseful moment, which is enough to provide a satisfying coda.