Nick of Time

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by John Badham

Written by Patrick Sheane Duncan and Ebbe Roe Smith

With Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Charles S. Dutton, Peter Strauss, Roma Maffia, Gloria Reuben, Marsha Mason, and Courtney Chase.

In an era when hack directors bludgeon us with stupidity, flashing close-up images of violence to disorient us, John Badham in Nick of Time moves his camera with consummate mastery and edits with unusual clarity. He’s in complete control.

Unfortunately, Badham’s control extends to the emotions his material evokes in himself and in the viewer. Viewers pick up on this control, this mastery over human beings and events. We start to share the director’s godlike omniscience, his ability to direct destiny, and the characters begin to seem like insignificant pawns in a pleasant chess game. A director should be guided by his characters, not the other way around. Badham’s Saturday Night Fever succeeds in part because of the emotional connection he feels with the John Travolta character. But if the director’s emotions aren’t real, aren’t engaged by the story, then his characters’ emotions won’t be real either.

The events in Nick of Time hinge on a kidnapping, but we know the victim’s life is at risk only because her kidnapping advances the plot–though admittedly that plot has a logical coherence lacking in many thrillers. After attending the funeral of his wife, accountant Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) arrives in Los Angeles with his young daughter (Courtney Chase) for a business meeting. She’s kidnapped by “Mr. Smith” and “Ms. Jones” (Christopher Walken and Roma Maffia), who will kill her unless Watson assassinates the newly elected governor (Marsha Mason), who refuses to return the favors of the corrupt special-interest groups that got her elected. Watson is given until 1:30 PM, an hour and a half after the kidnapping, to get the ransom–to pay for his daughter’s life with the life of the governor.

The movie unfolds in real time, so we know exactly how much time both the protagonist and we as viewers have left, a device that’s problematic for two reasons. Because we know when the climax will occur, and because the director has given himself a technical rather than an artistic objective. The movie feels empty, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope does. The definitive example of this flawed focus, however, occurs in the oeuvre of Hitchcock student Brian De Palma. Bonfire of the Vanities opens with one of the longest, most impressive mobile-camera takes in cinema history–a technical feat De Palma pulled off with a lot of money and time. But do viewers care about the character the camera is following? De Palma doesn’t bother to ask.

Badham fails to ask the same question. Gene Watson’s daughter in Nick of Time might as well be a dog: she’s cute but she’s just a device. And Depp, with his smooth, masklike skin, untouched by gravity, never betrays the desperation or sadness he should. After falling 30 feet into a fountain, he emerges looking as if he’s just done a GQ layout. Walken is also miscast. All his performances have an edgy undertone, an element of danger that adds depth to cardboard heroes. But the same qualities make him a predictable villain. He’s asked to exaggerate his edginess, to push it to the fore, where it becomes obvious and uninteresting. In Walken’s least convincing performances as villains (The Milagro Beanfield War and A View to a Kill), the subtext has become the text.

Depp and Walken should have switched roles: With his masklike countenance, Depp could easily pass for an amoral, impassively ruthless corporate scumbag on his way up the ladder. And Walken always looks as if his wife has just died. Despite the real-time gimmick and the supposed stress, Depp manages several bathroom breaks during the movie and always looks like a man wasting time until 1:30 rolls around. Walken is the man who seems to have a permanently upset stomach.

Just as Depp doesn’t look as if he has much stake in the outcome, Badham directs as if he were solving a mathematical equation. Francois Truffaut and Martin Scorsese also made thrillers, misguidedly believing that by re-creating the films they loved in their youth they were paying homage to the cinematic past; but both The Bride Wore Black and Cape Fear looked like attempts to fill in blank spots on their resumes.

For Hitchcock the thriller formula was a disguise, a way of mastering his audience while dealing with the subject matter that compelled him. Truffaut writes that Hitchcock cared tremendously whether his movies were hits. Though he tried to cover this concern with the pretense that he was merely an entertainer, box-office receipts were for him a personal validation–proof that his dreamlike narratives of desire and conquest and defeat, his fantasies, were shared by others, were more normal than the masses liked to admit. Marnie verges on camp because its emotions are so charged, but the outcome is more important to us than whether or not Gene Watson will save his little girl. Marnie is like a therapy session, with repressed secrets spilling out at the end and the healing beginning as the credits scroll. So many recent movies are not therapeutic, not personal at all.

Entertainment without emotional reality is like a bad Oscar Wilde story where we’re asked to share the author’s smug superiority rather than become involved with the characters. When Hitchcock swirls the camera around the lovers in Vertigo, he’s using the technique to express a loss of control, an immersion in dizzying emotions. When De Palma swirls the camera around the lovers in Body Double it’s a joke, a play on an earlier style, humorous because it’s merely a technical directorial decision, not an emotional one.

Fortunately Badham takes his work more seriously than De Palma does his, and therefore Nick of Time isn’t smug. But there’s nothing more at stake here than whether or not the movie will be “entertaining,” and superficial, mechanically adept entertainment is never enough. What genuinely entertains us is ourselves–if we don’t recognize ourselves, if we cannot place ourselves somewhere in the story, then the events on-screen are nothing. They have no relation to what’s important–you and me.