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(2001) (Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy) (R)

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Suspense/Thriller: After his daughter is kidnapped, a psychiatrist does what he must to persuade a mentally disturbed young woman to give up a secret number the kidnappers need to find a jewel they stole a decade earlier.
New York psychiatrist Dr. Nathan Conrad (MICHAEL DOUGLAS) lives the good life on the Upper West Side with his beautiful wife, Aggie (FAMKE JANSSEN), and their 8-year-old daughter, Jessie (SKYE McCOLE BARTUSIAK). Although he's now considered uptown, that doesn't prevent his former colleague, Dr. Louis Sachs (OLIVER PLATT), from calling him in for a special case on the night before Thanksgiving.

It seems that Sachs' newest patient, Elisabeth Burrows (BRITTANY MURPHY), is a very troubled young woman who's now locked up after attacking an orderly. With a history of misdiagnoses and multiple hospitalizations, no one has been able to crack Elisabeth's case and Louis is worried that if he and Nathan can't do so soon, the girl will be sent away forever.

Nathan agrees to do what he can, but soon learns that others are interested in Elisabeth, but for different reasons. Waking up Thanksgiving morning, Nathan and Aggie - who's bedridden with a broken leg - discover that Jessie has been kidnapped. It seems that Patrick Koster (SEAN BEAN) and his group of thugs have abducted the girl and threaten to kill her if Nathan can't extract a specific six-digit number from Elisabeth's tangled psyche that will help them retrieve a valuable jewel they stole a decade earlier.

With a 5 o'clock deadline and instructions not to contact the police since the kidnappers will be watching his and Aggie's every move, Nathan sets out to do what he can. As NYPD detective Sandra Cassidy (JENNIFER ESPOSITO) follows the trail of a homicide that eventually leads her toward the kidnappers, and Jessie tries to befriend some of them, such as Max (CONRAD GOODE), Nathan races against the clock as he tries everything possible to get Elisabeth to give up the number.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
The Rolling Stones used to sing - and probably still do - "Time is on my side, yes it is." Funny thing, that temporal quality. Sometimes it is on our side and we cherish what amount we have of it. In other instances, though, it's not as user friendly as it slips by or there simply isn't enough of it in any given twenty-four hour period.

In the movies, time is often used as a plot element where one or more characters must race against the clock to stop a marriage, score the winning basket or do something related to a nefarious plot in a certain amount of time before something bad is going to happen

That's the case in "Don't Say A Word," a would-be suspense thriller that follows in a long line of movies such as "Nick of Time," "Outbreak" and any number of others where time is as much of an antagonistic force as the flesh and blood villains. Here, a character has less than twelve hours to get a mentally unstable young woman to cough up a six-digit number lest his young daughter be offed by some kidnapers.

That's a decent, if familiar sounding setup, and the premise is intriguing and engaging as it generates all sorts of questions on the viewer's part. They include ones regarding the importance of the number, why the kidnappers want it, and whether the holder really is mentally ill or is just faking it and if so, why. Then there's the whole question revolving around the 5 P.M. deadline. Why isn't it 6 or even midnight? Are the villains in a hurry to get on the road so that they can beat rush hour traffic?

Unfortunately, the eventual answers - if and when they arrive - aren't as satisfactory and don't live up to the level of the questions. The same holds true for the way in which director Gary Fleder ("Kiss the Girls," "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead") and screenwriters Anthony Peckham (making his feature film writing debut) and Patrick Smith Kelly ("A Perfect Murder") -- who work from the novel by Andrew Klavan - fashion and guide the story.

While the race against the clock setup automatically makes things intriguing to one degree or another, the seemingly arbitrary deadline doesn't make sense and the filmmakers don't milk the temporal suspense as effectively as they should. Despite the time limit, I never really experienced the urgency of the moment, and it doesn't always seem that the protagonist does either.

It doesn't help that the various story elements don't gel in what most would consider a completely satisfactory fashion. The most intriguing and meatiest material involves Michael Douglas ("Traffic," "Wonder Years") playing the psychiatrist trying to pry open the mind of a young woman - Brittany Murphy ("Sidewalks of New York," "Clueless") in the sort of role that thespians love to play - who may or may not be mentally ill.

Murphy delivers an effective and initially chilling performance, and the interplay between her and Douglas' characters is good as he tries to figure out how to extract the number he needs from the cobwebs of her brain.

Unfortunately, the moments between him and the antagonists aren't as engaging. That's because the villains - namely Sean Bean ("Goldeneye," "Patriot Games") - are boring and one-dimensional, seemingly coming straight from the "How to Write & Play Villains" handbook. A subplot featuring Jennifer Esposito ("Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000," "Summer of Sam") as a feisty detective who's hot on the trail of a murder case often feels incongruous with the rest of the material and is far too predictable. Gee, does anyone think it will eventually lead her to the main criminals just in the nick of time?

Meanwhile, Famke Janssen ("Made," "X-Men") is literally stuck in a subplot obviously inspired by the "Rear Window/Wait Until Dark" type of story where we know the bed-ridden, broken leg scenario will put her in harm's way. Skye McCole Bartusiak ("The Patriot," "The Cider House Rules") appears as the kidnapped young girl and delivers the standard, too precocious and resourceful young victim to be believable performance, while Oliver Platt ("Bulworth," "Dr. Dolittle") does his usual shtick.

Then there's the obligatory and presumably cathartically violent conclusion where the villains are offed, the hero is heroic and everyone lives happily ever after (except, of course, the villains). It's the least satisfactory part of the film as it comes off as just yet another typical and unimaginative conclusion for this sort of picture.

All of that said, and notwithstanding the lame finale, the film isn't completely painful to watch and does have some decent moments. Yet, the aforementioned problems and the various bits of implausible material - including some stupid behavior by the criminals early on and the question of how they managed to so thoroughly bug various places with surveillance equipment without being detected themselves, etc. - prevent the film from being as good and/or effective a thriller as it seems like it should be. As a result, "Don't Say a Word" rates as just a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 20, 2001 / Posted September 28, 2001

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