Again, as in Dead Man (1995), Johnny Depp as a mild-mannered accountant arrives by train in a strange, threatening place. And again, this shy hero walks unexpectedly straight into a catastrophic situation that forces him to hold and fire a gun for the first time in his life.
But this is not the Wild West of the nineteenth century; it is present day Los Angeles, and all the cold menace of our time is concentrated in the garishly postmodern architecture of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel.
Gene (Depp) is a single father with a gorgeous little girl, Lynn (Courtney Chase). Two icy operators, Smith (Christopher Walken) and Jones (Roma Maffia), on orders from mysterious power-brokers, descend on Gene. Holding Lynn captive, they force upon Gene a terrible mission: to kill, at point-blank range, the popular and progressive Governor Grant (Marsha Mason).
Naturally, Gene tries hard to circumvent this command. But not only does Smith have seemingly supernatural powers of villainy, seeing and hearing virtually every move Gene tries to make before he makes it; it also transpires that plenty of other people attached to the Governor are part of this dastardly conspiracy.
Producer-director John Badham has a prolific but uneven output. Nick of Time is as deftly crafted a piece of work as his underrated Nikita remake, Point of No Return (1993).
As a filmmaker, Badham has always revelled in depicting intricate, fiddly bits of physical business, such as the cool, professional rituals involved in being a sniper or a getaway driver. Here, he tackles the challenge of more-or-less matching the time of the fictional action (Gene has ninety minutes to complete his mission) to the running time of the film itself.
This is a proficient thriller that wears all its references and influences on its sleeve. Hitchcockian elements abound: Gene's character and his predicament will remind many film buffs of North by Northwest (1959), while the real-time aspect recalls Rope (1948). The political conspiracy theme evokes memories of paranoia thrillers from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to The Parallax View (1974). The deranged, sadistic monologues given to the villains have an obvious Tarantino touch.
Best of all is the film's more outlandish edge, reminiscent of recent oddball action pieces by Brian De Palma (Raising Cain ) or Rowdy Herrington (Striking Distance ). Nick of Time, I suspect, will be lambasted by many literal-minded reviewers for its narrative implausibility or downright silliness.
Much of the movie in fact plays out like an absurdly comic nightmare – complete with one delicious passage of outright hallucination. For me, this quality of unreality distinguishes the film from so many similar action pieces.
In other respects, however, Badham treads very safely.
Nick of Time gives out strangely mixed messages about American multiculturalism. Non-WASP characters are first seen, through our hero's eyes, as predatory, menacing figures; gradually, in the course of this adventure, they become central, heroic players. Yet, when Gene's maverick actions inadvertently cause the death of one African-American political aide, neither Gene nor the film registers a single moment of remorse on her behalf.
After all, there's still the hero's little girl to be saved.
MORE Badham: Blue Thunder
© Adrian Martin May 1996