Wednesday 8 July 2020

Movie Review: Two-Minute Warning (1976)

A wobbly combination of sniper thriller and big-scale disaster movie, Two-Minute Warning deploys an anonymous villain to dispatch featureless victims in a void of emotions.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is hosting the annual football championship game (the NFL's Super Bowl in all but name), and the local Los Angeles team is up against their Baltimore rivals. Police Captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston) has to stretch his resources to cover the game, while Sergeant Chris Button (John Cassavetes) is the local SWAT team commander. Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam) is in charge of stadium security.

From a hotel room window, a mysterious sniper shoots and kills a cyclist. The sniper then drives across town, enters the Coliseum, infiltrates an off-limits area and sets-up above the scoreboard. The stadium starts to fill with 92,000 spectators, including Mike Ramsey (Beau Bridges) and his family, gambler Stu Sandman (Jack Klugman), quarreling lovers Steve and Janet (David Janssen and Gena Rowlands), and a professional pickpocket (Walter Pidgeon).

The game starts and the television broadcast trailer is a hub of noisy activity with access to multiple camera angles, until an overhead camera from the hovering blimp picks up the sniper, hiding and waiting to unleash death from his vantage point.

For all its big-budget glitz, Two-Minute Warning teeters on the brink of an exceptionally nihilistic vision where innocent people die needlessly, murdered in a mass casualty event by a faceless assassin with no rational cause. But instead, this weird hybrid of Dirty Harry and every 1970s big-budget disaster movie falls on the wrong side of the entertainment fence.

For a full 90 minutes, director Larry Peerce occupies himself with banal details of uninteresting characters getting ready to attend the big game and then taking their seats as spectators, a parade of familiar actors appearing in snippets to reveal how utterly ordinary and unworthy of any screen time their characters are. In the meantime the faceless and nameless sniper occupies his station above the stadium scoreboard, and for all his careful preparations does nothing to safeguard against fans with binoculars and the overhead blimp, stuffed with cameras.

And Two-Minute Warning is then padded with numerous on-field football action scenes of no consequence to the plot, an unwanted sports drama erupting in the middle of a stale disaster thriller.

While the breathtakingly bungled response of the police and SWAT teams may not be unrealistic, Peerce stretches credibility to the limit, Captain Holly, Sergeant Button and security chief McKeever checking every wrong box of inaction and displaying all the urgency of suntanning sea lions as tragedy beckons.

It is the final 30 minutes of carnage that almost save the movie. Once the surprisingly indestructible sniper decides to open fire at the game's two-minute warning mark (again, his reasons for choosing this time are not explained), Peerce kicks the action into gears of utter panic and choreographs good scenes featuring thousands of people stampeding. Acts of tragedy, idiocy and heroism converge, and a decent number of the stars on parade encounter a bloody death moment to justify the paycheque.

Charlton Heston and John Cassavetes just grit their teeth and hide behind macho sunshades, trying hard to act heroic, inject purpose, and look serious, but alas they stand defeated in a stadium occupied by bad scripting.

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