Christopher Walken told Judge Joel Pearce to write this review in an hour and a half...or else.
Ninety minutes. Six bullets. No choice.
When Nick of Time first came out in 1995, it felt like nothing we had ever seen. The gimmick of running a film in real time felt fresh and exciting, an action movie that actually sustained intensity for the whole running time. Of course, that was 11 years ago, and a lot of movies have been released since then.
For those of you who missed it the first time around, the story is quite simple (if convoluted). Gene Watson (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands) arrives in L.A. with his six year old daughter, Lynn (Courtney Chase). In the train station, they are grabbed by Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken, Sleepy Hollow) and Ms. Jones (Roma Maffia, Disclosure). They give him a gun, a nasty laceration on the leg, and the promise that they will kill his daughter if he doesn't murder Governor Eleanor Grant (Marsha Mason, The Goodbye Girl) in an hour and a half. Gene resists at first, but soon realizes that they are extremely well organized, and that they aren't bluffing about his daughter. Someone is going to die, and he is running out of time.
I hadn't thought much about the impact of 24 on action thrillers, at least until I stuck Nick of Time into the DVD player and watched it for the first time in 10 years. I remember first watching it as a young video store employee, intrigued by its novel concept and the gimmick that managed to hold together an action film that should have completely fallen apart. We get so used to the compression of time in film that we've come to expect stories to jump ahead in time. This film felt completely different, and had an energy that sparked through it in a pretty impressive way.
Returning to it now, Nick of Time doesn't feel particularly special. When 24 came along in 2001, it raised the bar by telling a story in real time (roughly) across an entire day. It has more twists, more action, more suspense, and much better developed characters than Nick of Time. Since then, many action movies have become more streamlined, gradually cutting down on the exposition that slows down the thrill machine. The return to Nick of Time is a bit of a disappointment now, as the only concept that once set it apart has now been outdone.
Of course, with Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken squaring off, it can't be all bad. Johnny Depp plays a great everyman, and settles quickly into the role of Gene. We never get much of a chance to get to know him, but he is both sympathetic and unpredictable, making him a solid action star. Walken really just plays Walken, but admit it: That's really all we need him to do. He is creepy and evil, and makes the implausibility of his character's power seem a little less implausible.
It's only after Nick of Time is over that we realize how flimsy it is. If this many people are in on the murder, why bring in an unstable outsider? Why not just make the Governor's death look like an accident? How does Mr. Smith magically appear over and over again? If Gene is supposed to be seen on all of the local security cameras, wouldn't Smith want to make sure that he wasn't seen by all of the cameras at the same time? Handing an inexperienced and unstable person a gun isn't a good assassination plan, it's a recipe for chaos. In the middle of the film, though, it's surprising how little these things matter. It's a testament to the intensity of the film, which lasts long enough for us to enjoy watching.
Paramount's Nick of Time DVD has a strange look, but it's hard to tell who's to blame. The film itself has a strange, hand-held look, which is slightly desaturated and harshly lit. For a variety of reasons, this does not transfer well to DVD. For one thing, Paramount tossed in a lot of edge enhancement, which makes the contrast look fake. Skin tones look pasty, although there is a fair amount of detail overall. The image is also grainy, but it's digital compression grain, not natural-looking film grain. The sound is much better, with a meatier than average stereo track and an immersing upmix to Dolby 5.1. The voices are crystal clear, and the depth sounds natural.
The only special feature on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, which is fully saturated and looks like a completely different film. Paramount hasn't pulled out all the stops on this one, but I'm not sure they needed to. I don't feel an intense desire for a retrospective on this forgotten little film.
Ultimately, Nick of Time doesn't work very well. It's a gimmicky, heavy-handed action film that really hurts the morning after. That said, it does remain an entertaining and edgy little film that probably had more influence on contemporary action films than anyone realizes. Buried inside this mindless thriller was the seed that would grow into some of the most pulse-pounding entertainment around. For that and a couple solid performances, I think it warrants a rental.
Nick of Time has, ironically, run out of time.
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