John Badham (director), Nick of Time
Soft-spoken accountant Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) steps off an Amtrak in Los Angeles with his daughter, on just another day. Newly widowed, Watson is still adjusting to single fatherhood, running his business while raising a daughter. But when he trips an aggressively rude skateboarder, we realize Watson has massive amounts of compressed rage beneath his veneer. The same thought hits Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken), who approaches Watson with a badge.
Back before tax levies and an acrimonious divorce turned Johnny Depp into the ego that ate Hollywood, he famously sought only roles that provided some intellectual or artistic challenge. This meant he worked classics like Edward Scissorhands and Donnie Brasco, but also losers like Private Resort and L.A. Without a Map. This was probably his biggest bomb, returning under a quarter its production budget. Yet in the years since, it has also become a half-acknowledged classic.
Once segregated from the crowds, Smith and his associate reveal their true intentions: this has become a hostage situation. We now have your daughter, Smith tells Watson, while handing him a revolver and a box of ammunition. We demand that you assassinate the governor of California, who’s only a short cab ride away. If, in one hour, the governor isn’t dead, your daughter will be.
This movie’s signal tone is claustrophobia. After the initial scene in the Amtrak station, the entire movie takes place inside Los Angeles’ iconic Westin Bonaventure hotel, a landmark of gleaming glass-and-steel architecture. This means the movie has almost no outdoor shots, and therefore no long-angle shots. Everything happens very close to the camera; even crowds are circumscribed by space, their echoing cacophony emphasizing how we’re stuck indoors.
Nor does space make the only claustrophobic limit. This movie is also pinioned by time: the ninety minutes we spend watching this movie is how long the events require to actually take place. Other than a few brief moments,we follow Gene moment-for-moment through the worst afternoon of his life. The camera becomes a mirror of Gene’s private hostage drama; if he’s trapped, so are we.
|Johnny Depp (left) and Christopher Walken in Nick of Time|
Trapped inside the Bonaventure, Watson discovers a gold-plated world where people display their wealth, but nobody talks to one another. The governor, played by four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason, is surrounded by fans, donors, and hangers-on. Everybody wants something from her, so when Watson tries to warn her about the assassination attempt, his becomes just another voice in a crowd. Violence gets drowned out by the tedium of political life.
Worse, Smith is bird-dogging Watson’s every step. Whenever Watson tries to speak up, Smith shushes him, with an implicit threat to Watson’s daughter. If Watson deviates from Smith’s script, he finds himself in for a pummeling (gut punches are the order of the day). One starts to wonder, if Smith has a script so perfectly prepared, why doesn’t he do the shooting himself? Turns out there’s a reason, and that reason is appropriately dark.
But Watson finds one reassuring ally. Huey, a disabled veteran working as the hotel’s shoe shiner (Charles S. Dutton), has a sense of honor exceeding his lowly employment status. (Try to ignore the inherent Magic Negro stereotypes.) Huey plays dumb to get bigger tips from his customers; but he proves well-connected within the Bonaventure’s staff. If you ever needed proof why organized labor is beneficial, Huey’s ability to make things happen quickly provides it.
Johnny Depp quietly underplays Gene Watson, a downright timid man whose clean-pressed demeanor conceals grief and savagery boiling within him. Watson resents Smith’s attempts at control, which simply exaggerate the ways 1990s California, with its gleaming architecture and stark inequality, controls workers. Watson’s clean, white-collar demeanor apparently goes only clothing-deep. His increasingly disheveled appearance mirrors the passions he can no longer contain.
Themes of confinement drive this film. Stuck inside the building, events unfolding in real time, Watson can’t escape, not even through the cinematic mercy of camera cuts. He can only resist by turning the system’s confines against those who threaten his family. But he quickly identifies the system’s limitations and exploits them to save himself. Watson doesn’t break the system, he simply finds the system’s weaknesses and uses them.
British-American director John Badham has done diverse work, from entertainments like Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit, to punchy topical dramas like WarGames and Criminal Minds episodes. This movie draws together several themes from throughout Badham’s career. Though the film failed upon initial release, fan reception has given it second life. It definitely bears repeat watching.