Judge Alice Nelson assumed this was James Brown in The Big Playback. Oh, how disappointed she was...
From that wiseacre kid with the Jack Nicholson fixation in Heathers, to straight-to-DVD releases; Christian Slater, oh how the not so mighty have fallen.
Remember the joke…The night I spent in (insert town name here) was the longest week of my life? Well, the 98 minutes I spent watching Playback felt like an eternity, a mixture of utter frustration blended with moments of sheer boredom. This teen horror flick had potential, but loses its focus after an intriguing opening sequence and can't overcome a bland script.
Facts of the Case
In October 1994, Harlan Diehl (Luke Bonczyk) murdered his entire family before being killed by police. The only survivor of that horrible night was his sister's young child. Fast forward 18 years. Julian Miller (Johnny Pacar) and four friends are making a movie—a recreation of the Diehl murders—as part of a class assignment. (You just know this isn't going to end well). Julian isn't satisfied with their progress and wants to know more about what went on that night. His mother was a young police officer at the time but remains mute on the subject. As Julian digs deeper, his friends begin to mysteriously disappear, and the secrets of a decade's old massacre begin to surface.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Christian Slater is not the star of Playback as the film's marketing might suggest. So if you're a Slater fan—and really who isn't—you won't get that fix from this film; he shows up intermittently 20 minutes after this mess gets going, then abruptly leaves 30 minutes before the end credits. Slater has always been more of a movie star than an actor, and consistently plays variations on the same role: a smart alec wiseass with a penchant for witty one liners. Here, he isn't even using the old schtick, and without it he doesn't have much else to give. As sleazy sheriff's deputy Frank Lyons, a role that has no worthwhile purpose, Slater looks haggard. He doesn't help in any investigation, doesn't do much sheriffing, and it pains me to say his presence would not be missed. In fact, without him, the film would've mercifully been at least 20 minutes shorter.
Written and directed by Michael Nickles (Wayne's World 2), Playback never matures into a fully formed movie. It's a composite of several stories loosely tied together in one ball of tedium. There's the story of murderer Harlan Diehl. Another story involving Julian Miller and his friends filming a movie about the night Harlan whacked his family. There's the introduction of a strange figure from the past named Louis Le Prince who developed a way to transfer his soul into others using a motion picture camera. The shady no-goodnik (Toby Hemingway, Black Swan), a former co-worker of Julian's, who becomes an unwitting pawn in Le Prince's game. And finally there's Deputy Lyons, whose only connection to these events is his purchase footage from Quinn of scantily clad high school girls photographed from unsuspecting places. Nickles is never able to blend these ideas together into one smooth story, which causes Playback to unfold in a scattered and frenetic way.
The performances by this young cast are not the problem. These up-and-comers are earnest in their efforts, doing the best they can with a terrible script. In fact, the worst acting in Playback is turned in by Christian Slater, who appears to be phoning it in. It has all the earmarks of an actor taking a job for a quick paycheck…but you didn't hear that from me.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, some of the night scenes may be a little hard to make out but the transfer quality is just fine. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is crisp and clear, with a score from composer Woody Pak that's so forgettable, once the film ended, I couldn't tell you anything about it; even if you held a gun to my head. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, a look at the film from HDNet's point of view, and unnecessary photo gallery, and the film's trailer, for those times when your DVD just isn't crammed with enough stuff.
I was tempted to simply write "The film Playback sucks." Then I thought better of it, knowing my editor might want a bit more than a single "eloquent" statement. This isn't the worst thriller I've ever seen (read my review of The Alley). It is, however, more egregious because of its squandered potential. Nickles sabotages his own work by playing things way too safe, giving us a film so mundane and clichéd that a five-year-old could figure out its predictable storyline.
Don't play this one back. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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