Film of the week: Don't say a Word

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- In the wake of Sept. 11, does America want to see Michael Douglas' violent Manhattan thriller "Don't Say a Word"?

It's intense, fast-paced, superbly edited, decently acted, rather nonsensical and no more memorable than its title.


So, how many people will watch it? Nobody knows.

That "nobody knows anything" about which movies will be hits and which ones duds is the most time-tested bit of Hollywood wisdom.

Screenwriter William Goldman pointed out in 1983, "Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess ..."

Last summer, though, was the first season in living memory when the industry felt any legitimate confidence in its power to predict what the public wanted.

Traditionally, highly anticipated films routinely sold out at most theatres during their opening weekend, turning many would-be customers away. That meant that if the new movie generated poor word-of-mouth, many of the frustrated wouldn't try again the next weekend.


The proliferation of 18 to 30 screen megaplexes, however, meant that by last summer a movie whose ad campaign tested well would often open in five or six screens at one location. Just about anybody who wanted to see a hotly hyped movie during its first weekend could get in.

(While it may seem from box office reports as if the number of "screens" on which movies open has only inched upward, that's just a shortcoming in the statistics. Those aren't individual screens that are being counted, just individual theatres. The actual number of separate screens on which expected blockbusters debut has hurtled upward.)

Opening on an enormous number of screens took word-of-mouth -- the Great Imponderable -- largely out of the equation last summer. Movies whose ads had tested well in focus groups were guaranteed to take in $40 million to $80 million over the first weekend. From there, no matter how indifferent the word-of-mouth, sheer pop culture momentum would carry them to grosses of $100 million, or even $200 million in the case of a stiff with a great trailer like "Pearl Harbor."

But all that easy money was coming to a seasonal end even before Sept. 11. The fact is that practically nobody goes to movies in September in any year. This is a month of work, not leisure. Only one September-opening movie in history has made more than $24 million its first weekend (the original "Rush Hour" with $33 million).


During the seven months of the year that aren't summer or the holidays, America has vastly too many screens. (That's why so many theatre chains are bankrupt.) So, booking your fall film on 10,000 separate screens won't do much good. The main hope for hitting it rich in the early autumn is to do it the old-fashioned way -- keep people coming week after week by earning the great word of mouth that "Meet the Parents" enjoyed last year.

The tension makes success even more uncertain. Right now, Hollywood is desperately theorizing about which genres might suddenly have gone out of fashion. Do people want to see, say, comedies right now to get their mind off the tragedy, or would they consider them flippant?

What about action movies where the hero brings brutal vengeance down upon evildoers?

"Don't Say a Word" is a taut but conventional crime thriller, quite similar to Mel Gibson's 1996 "Ransom." Michael Douglas plays his usual character. Here he's a wealthy, successful New Yorker with a lovely (young) wife and a precious 8-year-old daughter.

A gang lead by a vicious foreigner (an Englishman, played by Sean Bean) kidnaps his daughter. The twist is that the bad guys are electronics wizards who have somehow pervasively bugged Douglas' apartment with tiny TV cameras.


Bean warns Douglas that if he tries to call the police, his Orwellian henchmen will kill Douglas' little girl. (Hence the title).

The plot has numerous logical holes in it. For example, the gang got out of the Attica penitentiary just three weeks before, after 10 years on ice. When did they become such high-tech virtuosos? Perhaps when you check into Attica, the concierge asks if you'd prefer to spend your free time for the next decade in the weight room or in the prison's state-of-the-art electronic espionage lab?

Now, if the producers had given me a week or two, I could have come up with 10 minutes of expository dialogue that would have fixed almost all the irrationalities in the story. Yet, would making the movie less dubious but more talky help it at the box office? The answer, once again, is: Nobody knows.

The outcome of the movie inevitably follows from the casting. Our hero may be the perfect family man, but he still radiates those familiar Michael Douglas Ruthlessness Rays. It's clear that the bad guys will get what's coming to them. Some of the suspense, in fact, stems from wondering just how cruel Douglas' retribution will prove to be.


So, is victory over bad guys what America wants to see right now?

As always, nobody knows.

"Don't Say a Word" is rated "R" for violence, language, and general harshness.

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