Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) seems to have everything. A beautiful wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen). A cute eight-year-old daughter, Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak). And a very successful psychiatric practice. Then one morning, he finds his daughter kidnapped. The bad guy behind this is Patrick Koster (Sean Bean), who wants Nathan to get him a number buried in the memory of Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy), one of the psychiatric patients. Thus begins a race against the clock, as all of this has to be done by 5 p.m. that very day.
Future film historians will surely develop a moniker for the sub-genre of thrillers that Michael Douglas specialises in. These films usually follow the life of a very successful professional with a fabulous apartment and a great looking family. (This is a very important factor, by the way, for this sort of too-good-to-be-true family is what makes us root for them while munching the popcorn. Would you even consider a mainstream film in which an ordinary-looking hero, married to a plain Jane, with a tantrum-throwing, annoying brat, gets into similar sticky situations?)
Then Something Bad happens. Like the arrival of Glenn Close in `Fatal Attraction`. The arrival of Demi Moore in `Disclosure`. The arrival of Sean Penn in `The Game`. Or the arrival of Sean Bean in `Don`t Say A Word`. And you know the drill after this. His ordered life descends into chaos and all hell breaks loose till the hero somehow summons up his primal self-preservation instincts and the family unit is safe again.
While Douglas has played the same role in the same type of film over and over, what keeps the whole thing from degenerating into self-parody is the fact that these films are almost always well made within commercial parameters. They may not target the awards, but for an entertaining evening out at the movies, there are few surer bets. Plus, Douglas is very good at this sort of thing. And coming off a wonderful performance in the flop `Wonder Boys`, one of the most distinctively quirky and exhilarating comedies in the last several years, one doesn`t grudge his return to more surefire box-office territory.
`Don`t Say A Word` is very stylishly directed by Gary Fleder (`Kiss The Girls`), and while nothing startlingly original ever happens here, it`s still a pretty fun ride. The film starts off with a well-shot bank robbery that sets the rest of the plot in motion. The connection between this event and Elisabeth is slowly revealed through some interesting twists in the screenplay.
In the meantime, Aggie gets to fight with a bad guy while laid up in bed with a fracture. There`s a detective, played by Jennifer Esposito, running around with some investigation that may or may not be connected to the main story. And there`s Dr. Conrad doing his therapy with Elisabeth, trying to unlock the secret in her mind, while doing some investigating of his own on the side.
That`s a lot of balls in the air, and director Fleder juggles these plot strands well enough to prevent the audience from looking too keenly into whether some things are even plausible. Douglas comes off well, even if his performance is not really revelatory, but that`s probably because you`ve seen him do this several times. Another way to look at this is that if he is this convincing in the umpteenth retread of this character, maybe this is some sort of great performance. Murphy is also good in a rather sketchy role. And care has been taken to select the cutest possible kid as Jessie so that all the emotional cues are dictated to you even before the kidnapping actually occurs.
That`s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, the fact that a movie deals with familiar ground is all the reason needed to watch it. Spared of the rigours of intellectually demanding scenarios, here you have the good guys and bad guys neatly marked out. You know who`s going to win. You just want a few things here and there that make this a little different, like how the villain`s plans are foiled or how the patient`s confidence is gained.
Of late, I`ve gotten the feeling that the only two genres of films that Hollywood regularly does well anymore are the big special effects kind and the thrillers. There`s guaranteed to be some sort of professional competence, however impersonal and detached, in the execution of these films, and `Don`t Say A Word` is just the latest example. The style, high-tech gadgetry and breathless urgency in the film are their own rewards. Zip. Zap. Zoom. The End.
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