NICK OF TIME (1995) ** 1/2
In the thriller "Nick of Time," the ludicrously malevolent duo of Christopher Walken and Roma Maffia select from a train station crowd accountant Johnny Depp and his 6-year old daughter Courtney Chase. They seize them, put them in a van. Depp is handed a revolver and ordered to go to a big political shindig at Los Angeles' Bonaventure Hotel. There he must kill California Governor Marsha Mason who is on a re-election campaign. It is 12:16 pm. If by 1:30 the Governor is not dead, Depp's child will be executed.
Panicked and confused, increasingly desperate to find a way out, Depp makes several attempts at warning the Governor, but they are all foiled by Walken who is omnipresent. Until, that is. . . . but I'm not telling.
There are five principles or guidelines or formulae governing the thriller "Nick of Time." Not all of them work here but they all add pizzazz and excitement to the movie.
One principle is that political conspiracy is a subject so believable that it can paper over at least some of a film's impossibilities, especially a film like this one, as opposed to, for instance, the far more credible "The Parallax View."
Another is "real time," where action and viewing time are the same. Then we get The Worm Turning, as Depp finds unsuspected strength. Fourth and fifth are The Countdown and The Missing Finger principles.
Real-time has been tried before, sometimes convincingly. Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," an interesting experiment of 10-minute takes, strains at the seams to make all its events fit the movie's running time. "High Noon" does surprisingly well with its packing character depiction and development in its 84 "real time" minutes. The best example I can think of is a sad one, since the filmmaker died so recently. It is Louis Malle's "My Dinner With Andre."
The Countdown formula is in hundreds of movies. Clocks and watches, as in "Nick of Time," in "High Noon," in "Dr. Strangelove," in war films, heist, escape, blackmail pictures and a host of other genres, regularly show the hour and minutes as we near the H-hour. It is also done with digital countdown, as in director John Badham's own "WarGames."
The Missing Finger comes from Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps." An innocent visitor in London gets unwittingly involved in a murderous spying plot, and has to flee. Reaching Scotland, in a manor Robert Donat blurts out to his polite host Godfrey Tearle that the ring-leader has a missing finger. "Like this?" says Tearle, showing his four-fingered hand.
This fits Hitchcock's even larger principle of The Wrong Man, and in thrillers stands for the most unlikely people turning out to be villains. In "Nick of Time," outside and inside the Bonaventure, just about everyone Depp meets or warns is in cahoots with the plot's instigators. The number of conspirators is incredible, whether they are checkers with metal detectors or portable phones, a man videotaping the meeting, people in the Governor's entourage, others at the highest levels of the political scale.
Helpless Depp goes from one "missing finger" to another. When he does find allies they are both African-American, which satisfies the movie's political correctness and the greedy need for minority audiences. The helpers are successively a young woman then a one-legged Vietnam veteran shoeshine man Charles S. Dutton.
Most of the film is incredible. Item: why doesn't Walken "wire" Depp so as to hear everything he says? Item: why Depp, watched by Walken, thinks he can talk to Dutton undetected by Walken, simply by covering his mouth with his fingers? Item: why does Walken not notice this? Item: how does Dutton enlist aid so lightning fast and organize resistance? Item: what's the vision that Depp has, of successive killings? Item: how is it that Maffia, trying to shoot the child at close quarters in the van, keeps missing?
The list is long. But what would normally require impossible suspense of disbelief gets nicely hocus-pocused from the very start by non-stop suspense, fast action, breathless as well as imaginative cinematography and editing. The camera makes you almost dizzy with its numerous shots, large variety of angles, close-ups, zooms that follow the action. The sound too plays effective tricks (from inaudible to distant to echoey speech and noises) that reflect Depp's agitated state.
This a kinetic movie-movie, not an actors' film, so that the performances are OK. Except for Maffia's overdone nastiness, most of the roles are underplayed, each with almost a single expression. Depp is Everyman in a nightmarish situation; Walken is satanic; Dutton colorful but not in an insulting way; the several villainous roles are properly impassive - and you can tell right away whenever a new bad 'un shows up.
John Badham is a familiar name. Writer Patrick Duncan is less known, yet his credits include the Chuck Norris movie "Code of Silence" (writer); the excellent "84 Charlie Mopic" (writer-director); the little-seen, very good Kathy Bates starrer "A Home of our Own " (writer-producer). Coming very soon: "The Pornographer"(writer-director) and the Richard Dreyfus opus "Mr. Holland's Opus."