Friday, February 8, 2013

Two-Minute Warning

The Super Bowl was last week and I decided to follow that up with this football themed thriller about a sniper at the big game, which fits in nicely after last week's review of Targets (1968), also about a sniper (non-football related).  Sometimes things just work out like that.

Two-Minute Warning (1976) is part of the "disaster movie" trend that was all the rage in the 1970s, starting with the success of Airport in 1970, and followed (with varying success) by The Poseidon Adventure and Skyjacked in 1972, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenberg (1975), Black Sunday (1977, also football themed), Avalanche and The Swarm (1978), City on Fire (1979), and many, many others.  Films of this genre can generally be identified by containing two things:  some sort of impending (or ongoing) disaster (natural, accidental, or pandemic) and a huge cast of big name stars and character actors.

Two-Minute Warning scores on both accounts.

The drama centers around an unseen sniper who has gotten himself into the professional football championship game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and after being spotted by the TV cameras (and Goodyear Blimp), the authorities try to figure out how to get to him and not cause a panic.

It should be noted that the game is never called "The Super Bowl," the NFL is never mentioned, and even though the teams are Baltimore and Los Angeles, there is no mention of them being the Colts or the Rams (back when those teams played in those cities, kids).  The game footage in the film is a college game, a 1975 Pac-8 match between Stanford and USC (who won, 13-10), and commentators include Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Dick Enberg.  National Anthem sung by Merv Griffin.

The giant cast is led by Charlton Heston as the hero, hardass police captain and John Cassavetes as the no-nonsense, hardass SWAT leader, who is introduced doing SWAT guy things, like busting into a guy's house in some sort of domestic situation.  Both guys are very square and typical, not very developed as characters, and neither actor goes outside of their range.  Heston was already a veteran of these type of movies, having already starred in SkyjackedAirport 1975, and Earthquake.

Also starring and featured are stadium manger Martin Balsam (Psycho, 1960) and maintenance director Brock Peters (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), as well as attendees of the game:  troubled couple David Janssen and Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes real life wife), family man Beau Bridges, Jack Klugman (TV's The Odd Couple) who is in deep to the mob and has a lot riding on the game, friendly priest Mitchell Ryan (bad guy from Lethal Weapon), and my favorite character, an elderly pickpocket, played by the great Walter Pidgeon (Forbidden Planet (1956) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961); this would be his second to last screen performance).

Also, former professional quarterback Joe Kapp has a small role as, get this, a veteran quarterback.

The movie opens (after a somber opening credits sequence) with the sniper doing a test run, shooting a hapless bike rider outside of his hotel room.  It's good that things start on a sudden bit of violence (and bloodshed), as there wouldn't be any more shooting until the end of the picture.

Spoiler alert: the title "Two-Minute Warning" refers to the last two minutes of a football game, and it also happens to be when all the action in the movie starts. Until then, it's a lot of waiting.

The movie spends a lot of time setting things up, showing everyone's arrival to the stadium, giving all the characters their own little moments, some of which are better than others.  Beau Bridges is a dad at the game with the family, but when one of his little kids tells a pennant/hat vendor that his daddy "lost his job and doesn't have any money," Bridges hauls off and slaps the kid.  Then, he buys everybody hats.  Guess that makes it okay?  This is never brought back around, and they make Bridges' character out to be more important than he is (he is the first to spot the sniper), even though he doesn't really do anything.

My favorite characters (other than the elderly pickpocket) are the troubled couple of Janssen and Rowlands.  They're in from Baltimore to see the game, and it becomes apparent that they aren't married, even though it seems they've been together for awhile.  He's kind of a jerk, and she keeps pressing him to show her some sort of feelings.  You can tell he likes her, but he's still dismissive, for some reason or another.

This is a slow burn kind of movie, with a basic plot, that really gives the characters a lot of breathing room.  It doesn't exactly fill the movie with tension; you know some of these people are going to get shot, you're just placing your bets until the shooting starts.  When the sniper finally does, and the violent stampede of people starts and the cops are moving in, then things begin to get interesting and exciting.  Until then, it's slow going.

The filmmaking doesn't really contain any flourishes or stylistic flashes, except for maybe how the identity of the sniper isn't shown until the end, as he's shown through POV shots (like a slasher film) early in the film, before settling on a series of scenes that never clearly reveal his face, but show his actions, like loading the gun, climbing ladders, or eating candy bars (another similarity to Targets).  There is some gratuitous use of split-focus diopter in a couple scenes that comes off more ugly and alarming than clever or well composed (no one needs to be that close to Joe Kapp's face).  The musical score is too obvious, kind of dull headed, and there is this stupid refrain that is repeated whenever we cut back to the sniper.  Got on my nerves.

1976's Two-Minute Warning is one of the less financially successful disaster films, coming out at a time when the genre's power was waning.  Due to the film's level of violence and the uncomfortable fact that the sniper's motivations go unexplained, NBC negotiated a deal with Universal Studios to shoot additional scenes for the television version, which premiered in 1978.  The new scenes were about 40 minutes in length, adding in an art museum theft which the sniper is providing a distraction for, and Charlton Heston was brought in to shoot some additional scenes.  About 45 minutes of the film was removed, including a lot of the violent bloodshed of the final act.  Director Larry Peerce of course disowned this version of the film, having his name taken off of it.  This TV version of the film has never been released to home video of any kind.

Final thought:  Two-Minute Warning takes the basic premise of Targets and dumbs it down into a disaster film, beefing it up with a big name cast.  I wouldn't call it essential viewing, but it can be fun if you're looking for a good rainy afternoon watch.

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