Some dark, dramatic films get that way because of the story and the quality and breadth of the cast – take “The Deer Hunter” as the gold-standard in this category. However, another specimen is the dark, chilling drama that is infused with evil from one character and the best example of this that comes to my mind is “Panic” starring the absolutely wonderful William H. Macy and Neve Campbell of the “Scream” franchise (click here for my review of the original). Although they do world-class work here, the real star rising above a stellar cast is Donald Sutherland as Macy’s father. He’s the personification of evil while having absolutely no idea how poisonous his soul has pretty much always been. It’s the story of a hitman and his conscience … and the evil specter that is his father.
(2000-2001; 107 minutes; rated R; directed by Henry Bromwell and starring William H. Macy, Neve Campbell, Donald Sutherland and John Ritter)
A HITMAN QUESTIONS HIMSELF, BUT NOT ABOUT KILLING
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some more opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on Oct. 24, 2016.)
William H. Macy is nothing if not consistent – that is, he is consistently great in motion pictures. From cold, dark drama (“The Cooler”) to eclectic drama (“Fargo”) to even action-adventure (“Jurassic Park III” – click here for my review), Macy brings an A-game in a low-key way that should have earned him several Oscars and not just one well-deserved nomination for “Fargo.” Yes, he’s just that good.
So, I’m looking at the little-remembered and limited in release “Panic” and his outstanding performance is overshadowed by an even better one by Donald Sutherland. Sadly, a great turn by Neve Campbell has absolutely no chance of rising above those two, even though it is some of her best work along with the original “Scream” horror flick (she’s really good in that one and diss her because of the genre and notorious nature of the film). Even Tracey Ullman gives an award-winning effort in “Panic” and she’s completely overshadowed, as is John Ritter, who plays Macy’s therapist.
At the end of the day, despite the outstanding acting, your soul is just a bit offended by “Panic” and you probably won’t want to revisit this one. It’s a tough call to see it in the first place, but you shouldn’t miss the tremendous work of these actors although you’ll need a bit of lightening up after it.
In “Panic,” Macy is “Alex” and he’s been out-of-energy and depressed recently and winds up seeing a shrink (Ritter as “Dr. Josh Parks”). During his visit to Ritter he meets a younger woman (Campbell as “Sarah Cassidy”) and becomes immediately attracted to her and ultimately becomes enamored – he believes she gives him life and something to think about other than his depressing life. Notice how Macy and all his family have no last names while most other characters do?
The rest of the film is how Macy is affected by seeing this shrink and his full moodiness in bloom affects his relationship with his wife (Ullman as “Martha”) and especially his mother and father (TV’s “Mission: Impossible’s” Barbara Bain as “Deidre” and Sutherland as “Michael”). The father issue is exceptionally tough since Sutherland taught Macy how to kill and now is the go-between in setting up the financial part of their assassinations.
When he gets an assignment to kill his shrink, Macy doesn’t know if it is a true contract or just Sutherland eliminating a force in his life that he cannot control.
Most telling and disturbing is Macy’s recollections of how Sutherland taught him to shoot a handgun and even denigrated him during his first killing (possibly the only weak moment in the film as Sutherland looks like a football coach yelling at his star player). It’s a depressing life that has hit bottom emotionally speaking. It comes to a head when Macy finds out that Sutherland has taken his son out for a shooting lesson just as he did for himself years ago.
Here’s a rundown of the actors and their work:
- As I pointed out, Macy is simply tremendous in “Panic.” He’s the most low-key assassin you’ll ever meet (he even runs a mail-order business out of his house) and after scenes with Sutherland, his work with Ullman are the jewels of the film. I just cannot say enough about his work here and his entire body of work. Macy was also in “Boogie Nights” as well as in one of my personal favorites: “Thank You for Smoking” (click here for my review).
- Two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Sutherland is just so casual about his scheming, critical nature (he even castigates his grandson for messing up while building a model) that you forget he’s an actor doing a part. He is so good at his craft it is scary. He’s also done “Kelly’s Heroes” with Clint Eastwood (click here for my review) and “The Eagle Has Landed” (click here for my review). He was also the original “Hawkeye Pierce” in the “MASH” movie (there were no asterisks in the official title of the film – check the opening credits).
- Campbell brings energy to a nearly moribund group of characters. She’s on both sides of the fence in the bedroom and ultimately accepts Macy’s amorous overtures and that wasn’t an easy job for an actor. It would have been nice for her character to have a bit more depth, but I guess that’s part of what “Sarah” is here and there just wasn’t any more screen time give (although if it were available, I would have given it to Ullman). Campbell has also been in “Wild Things” and “I Really Hate My Job.”
- A Golden Globe winner for TV’s “Three’s Company” and another four nominations, Ritter is smooth and as perfectly smarmy as a therapist here. He’s clueless about real life and in that porcelain world of nearly make-believe where everyone sees a shrink because, as Ritter says in the film, it’s like a tune-up for your car. What crap. Ritter does a good job here, but by the end his character is lost amid the damage and electricity between Macy and Sutherland. I also like that Ritter did the second episode of “The Love Boat” (click here for my look at that series) in a wonderfully funny effort.
- A Golden Globe winner for her self-named TV show, Ullman is simply overlooked in this role. She easily conveys the emotions of a wife at a distance from a depressed, moody husband. Ullman is concerned and somewhat befuddled by what Macy has become (she’s unaware of his job as a killer). At the end of the film, she’s taking their son to see Ritter in a fitting end in which she meets Campbell. Ullman, who is also noted for her musical career, has been in “Small Time Crooks” as well as voicing in “Corpse Bride.”
- In the most understated effort in the film, Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Bain is nothing less than terrific as Sutherland’s wife, who has to live her life with a buffer between herself and her emotions. She knows what the deal is with the killing game and works in the background – in a cold way – to keep things on track. Bain dispatches this role has had a career mostly on television and also did “American Gun.”
“Panic” was on HBO before being first shown on the big screen in January 2000 at the Sundance Film Festival and then throughout that year at other film festivals, according to IMDb.com (and that’s why that website lists “Panic” as a 2000 film). It opened in the U.S. in limited release in December of 2000 and then in wider release in January 2001. So, as a former cable film, it only rang up an anemic $779,137. According to Wiki, its budget was only $1 million. The No. 1 film for 2000 was “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with $260 million while the No. 1 film for 2001 was “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” with $317.5 million. Although “Panic” is technically a 2001 film, here are the films from its opening year of 2000 that I’ve reviewed …
- “Road Trip” (outstanding raunchy comedy) – click here for my review
- “The Family Man” (solid holiday drama) – click here for my review
- “X-Men” (didn’t watch it) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- David Dorfman plays Macy’s son “Sammy” and he is the typical film kid (where an adult crafts his character): he’s quiet, introspective and, like Ritter, smarmy in a way that’s almost cloying. There might be real children out there like him, but they are few and far between – but not on-screen because you see too many of the ilk. Dorfan has also been in “Galaxy Quest” and “Drillbit Taylor.”
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal movie they can’t remember the title of is Running Scared (1986)”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “When it was released in Brazil, it caused controversies because the movie’s name, in portuguese translation, means ‘Pânico,’ name already given to slasher Scream (1996). Both movies star Neve Campbell.”
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