Michael Douglas has had a long, fairly eclectic career, but he has always won over audiences most successfully with the thriller genre. 1987's "Fatal Attraction" and 1992's "Basic Instinct" were on the list of top-grossing movies for their respective years, and audiences have always reacted eagerly to seeing him play nice, flawed guys with a healthy sexual prowess who find their lives turned upside-down by unforeseen circumstances.
"Don't Say a Word," directed by Gary Fleder (1997's "Kiss the Girls"), is the latest Michael Douglas suspenser that follows the formula closely, but leaves out the flaws of his character. Instead, he plays a merely nice man who is seemingly perfect in every way. Because Douglas has no personal demons to deal with this time at bat, it lessens the impact and complexity of what could have been a chillingly exciting ride. The story, as is, feels like a worn-out retread of 1996's superior "Ransom," which starred Mel Gibson and Rene Russo as a married couple whose son is brutally kidnapped and put into harm's way.
Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) is a much-lauded New York psychiatrist with a caring wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), and a lovely 8-year-old daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak). On Thanksgiving eve, Nathan is unexpectedly assigned to visit one of his comrade's patients at a mental institution. The subject is supposedly comatose 18-year-old Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), who has been in one hospital after the other for ten years. The next morning, Nathan and Aggie discover, to their horror, that someone broke into their apartment overnight and stole Jessie from them. Receiving a phone call from one of the ruthless kidnappers, Patrick (Sean Bean), Nathan is told that he has less than seven hours to unleash a mystery six-digit number that is locked away in Elisabeth's mind before his daughter is killed.
"Don't Say a Word," which spans little more than a 24-hour period, concerns a race against time that never achieves the status that it should as a pulse-pounding white-knuckler. Director Gary Fleder and mostly inept screenwriters Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly (adapting from a novel by Andrew Klavan) fail to inject much suspense or urgency into a premise that, for all intents and purposes, is shaggy and cliched. Instead, they have crafted a melodramatic potboiler that stretches the boundaries of believability far more than any one movie can withhold. Characters, for example, consistently contradict themselves from scene to scene for no other reason than to fulfill the requirements of the plot.
Also lacking is any sense that lives are truly in danger. Aside from one surprising twist midway through that is cleverly orchestrated, "Don't Say a Word" is predictable in the extreme. The young potential victim, otherwise well-played by Skye McCole Bartusiak (2000's "The Patriot
"), doesn't even act like a child who has been taken from her parents. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the average 8-year-old would be horrified if put into such a situation, especially when the big men around her are constantly talking about how they are going to kill her. In an attempt to make Jessie into a strong-willed kid, director Fleder has thrown away any sense of reality.
If the story, characters, pacing, and writing are subpar for the genre, the same cannot be said for the performances. Michael Douglas (2000's "Wonder Boys
") has a less interesting character than usual to play in Dr. Nathan Conrad, but that is only because he has little depth aside from what the gifted Douglas has done with the role himself.
Sean Bean (1998's "Ronin") is convincingly threatening as the nasty head henchman, Patrick. Oliver Platt (2000's "Ready to Rumble
") gets a few good scenes in an otherwise underwritten part as Nathan's coworker. Famke Janssen (2000's "X-Men
") gets off easy as she lies in a bed for most of her scenes (Aggie is still healing from a broken leg), but deftly projects the fear and desperation of a woman who can see everything happening around her, yet doesn't have the physical capabilities to do anything about it. Brittany Murphy (2000's "Girl, Interrupted
") is memorable as the perplexing Elisabeth Burrows, but her character is sadly equipped with most of the cornball dialogue and scenes, hindering the effectiveness of her admirable turn. Finally, Jennifer Esposito (1999's "Summer of Sam
") is excellent--far better than expected--as Detective Sandra Cassidy, who's investigating a recent murder that may or may not be linked to the kidnappers.
Had every other aspect of the product been as impressive as the actors, "Don't Say a Word" might have had a chance to be the crackerjack thriller it strives to be. Director Gary Fleder, however, comes off as a novice who has a lot to learn in the filmmaking profession, and judging by the even worse "Kiss the Girls," he does. The climactic showdown is especially ludicrous, collapsing in a sea of uneven story threads that all-too-conveniently come together. Ultimately, the studio may have a difficult time getting viewers to do just as the title advises once negative word starts to trickle out on how pedestrian a motion picture "Don't Say a Word" really is.
©2001 by Dustin Putman