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All Reference, No Content



Don't Say a Word (R)
20th Century Fox

Movies like Fatal Attraction, Falling Down and The Game have conspired to pigeonhole Michael Douglas as the actor most likely to get bulldozed beyond the breaking point of violence. But Don't Say A Word finds Douglas being nudged into snapping by kidnappers demanding that his psychiatrist character Dr. Nathan Conrad extract a cryptic code from Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a not-so-insane psychiatric patient, to recover his 8-year-old daughter.

The movie is a glorified kidnap thriller that bundles together gaudy New York City atmospheres with worn-out detective story plot devices in the hopes of creating suspense and surprise. The plot never crystallizes because there's never any doubt about how it will end. As an exercise in performance, Douglas helms the movie with characteristic driving dedication while Brittany Murphy is all over the place as a teen-age girl hiding behind mental disease.

Don't Say A Word opens with a flashback jewel theft crime caper that misleads the movie. With some slight of hand, robber number two steals a high-priced jewel from robber number one during the heist and, as we later find out, he ends up getting whacked for his double cross. But not before he has planted the jewel inside his daughter Elisabeth's favorite doll. Screenwriters Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly tug at the story, based on a mystery novel by Andrew Klavan, in four different directions instead of focusing on one. What starts out as a crime story takes on the sickly green pallor of a horror movie before segueing into a psychological thriller and then a revenge plot with a soft underbelly with the two girls at the center of the story.

In a move toward making the movie more palatable for television-bred audiences, the character of New York City police detective Sandra Cassidy (Jennifer Esposito of Spin City) is added as an adjunct ghost-in-the-machine to the story. Sandra is your basic female superdetective hot on a trail of corpses that have washed up around New York, leading directly to the same crooks that harbor Nathan Conrad's daughter. The case clicks together so quickly for Sandra that we're not supposed to question why she works without a partner or throws herself into crisis situations alone. She's a super-detective, and between her and the good doctor you can bet your bottom dollar this isn't going to be Seven revisited.

Director Gary Fleder (Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead) emulates as much as possible the look of David Fincher's Seven without achieving any of that superior film's heavy tone and fatalistic attitude. Fleder uses grainy saturated flashbacks every chance he gets, overplaying the hand that Don't Say A Word is dealt. You can feel the movie straining for a Death Wish level of revenge desire in Conrad, but the plot can't support that intensity of anger because Conrad's family is still alive. Conrad's wife Aggie (Famke Janssen of Made) lies up in the couple's palatial upper West Side apartment with a broken leg while the criminals watch her every move on surveillance cameras from the apartment above. But that can't stop Aggie from springing into action with an aluminum crutch when the clarion call to arms occurs. If too many chefs spoil the broth, then, in this case, too many heroes muck up the drama.

By the time the movie feels its way to a climax in the Potter's Field on Hart Island, the thousands of tombstones that fill the screen look like a throwback to Sleepy Hollow. It's a final mocking insult to audience sensibilities suggesting that the macabre imagery will compensate for the plot shortcuts that have brought us to this awkward finale. Not even Michael Douglas' heartfelt emotion can plug up the void that the filmmakers have opened up.

Don't Say A Word has a moment when the former World Trade Towers are visible in the New York skyline. It was enough to make the audience I screened the movie with applaud for what was once there. That's about as close as Don't Say A Word comes to affecting the viewer in a movie that's all reference and no content.

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