Dir: Gary Fleder. US. 2001. 111mins.
As generic as its title suggests, Don't Say A Word is a routine psychological thriller, elevated by Michael Douglas' strong presence and expert acting as an eminent yuppie shrink whose eight-year-old daughter is kidnapped by a British villain. Lacking in-depth characterisation or any feeling for the central endangered nuclear family, Gary Fleder's crafty but shallow suspense feature is based on two gimmicks: the ransom is a big red diamond, and the key figure for unravelling its location is a mentally disturbed girl, nicely played by up-and-coming star Brittany Murphy. Each of Douglas' 'white angst' thrillers has performed well at the box office (most recently A Perfect Murder), and there is no reason to doubt that this one (which he co-produced) will deviate from the norm - particularly now that there are not many new films around and the public may seek undemanding entertainment after being saturated with TV news for the past two weeks.
The kidnap ransom film, at the centre of which there is always a child, is one of the most commercially reliable sub-divisions of the US crime genre. Indeed, every couple of years, the Hollywood machine reinvents the formula. Don't Say A Word is not nearly as suspenseful or technically accomplished as the 1996 Mel Gibson star vehicle Ransom (directed by Ron Howard), but it certainly aspires to the same universe: a white middle-aged professional who seems to have it all until his child is abducted and his existence shattered.
Douglas has built his entire career playing the super-successful New Yorker - the ultimate yuppie - whose comfy upper-middle-class life is suddenly thrown out of order. The only variant is the profession of his characters, ranging from lawyer (Fatal Attraction) to stockbroker (Wall Street) to investor (A Perfect Murder). Basic Instinct, set in San Francisco, and the Los Angeles-set cautionary tale Falling Down, in which Douglas plays a disenfranchised American who goes off the deep end, could also go on the list.
On paper, the first reel of Douglas' new film seems to fit his general pattern, although it becomes clear early on that the soulless, plot-driven screenplay by Anthony Peckman and Patrick Smith Kelly (who also scripted Perfect Murder) has nothing serious or deep to say about family values (or any other issue), and that its mere goal is to provide frivolous thrills.
A brief prologue set in 1991 depicts a heist that for a change goes absolutely right, until one of the accomplices betrays his boss and walks away with the prize: the $10m diamond. The main yarn then jumps to the present, introducing Dr Nathan Conrad (Douglas), whose speciality is troubled teenagers. With a reassuring yet slightly nervous tone (a Douglas trademark), Conrad explains to his young patient, who had stolen panties from a girl's locker, that masturbation is not a major crime to be embarrassed about; that most males, younger and older, are guilty of it. Driving home to his wife Aggie (Janssen) and daughter Jessie (Bartusiak), Conrad is reminded to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.
Although anxious to get home, an urgent call from a colleague, Dr Sachs (Platt), takes him to a psychiatric ward, where he is asked to see a presumed- catatonic woman, Elisabeth (Murphy), who has just been arrested for cruelly beating a man. Using his expert knowledge, Conrad immediately realises that Murphy is not catatonic but is hiding a devastating past, in which she witnessed her father's execution in a subway station.
A cosy domestic scene follows upon Conrad's arrival at his home (which looks like the Ansonia Building on the Upper West Side). First, there is the hide-and-seek game with Jessie, a premonition for what is to come; then a sponge bath and sex with his bedridden wife, whose leg is in a cast. The next morning, after preparing breakfast for Aggie, Conrad realises that Jessie is missing. Before he has a chance to call the police, Conrad gets a phone call from Patrick Koster (Bean), the criminal who was robbed of the diamond, who identifies himself as the kidnapper. Koster sets the ground rules for an almost impossible mission - Conrad has to unlock a six-digit mystery number, stored within Elisabeth's suffering brain.
Though utterly formulaic, various limitations increase the tension: it is Thanksgiving Day, so traffic is bad due to Macy's Parade; Conrad has to unravel the secret code by 5pm; his wife is an invalid so cannot help; and neither Conrad nor Aggie can use their mobile phones as they are under surveillance by the kidnappers.
Unfortunately, after the first hour, the film goes downhill rapidly. Viewers do not have to be 'plausibles', as Hitchcock used to call those looking for holes and contrivances in his stories, to detect the superficial and fraudulent plot. Arguably no recent Hollywood film has done such positive service to psychiatry: in just two sessions, Conrad achieves progress with his patient worth a decade of therapy.
Police blockades and security systems in Don't Say A Word are minor obstacles, as Conrad talks smoothly to the cops, who end up escorting him; break into Dr Sachs' secretive files; and miraculously escape the mental hospital with Elisabeth on their way to a remote location where the gem might be hidden.
Perhaps the most movieish scenes belong to Aggie, whose cast proves to be a minor aggravation when she is forced to fight one of Koster's henchmen - she kicks butt better than her husband, almost effortlessly killing an armed criminal. Precocious daughter Jessie is also a movieish creation, playing musical games with her abductor and telling him that "not answering questions is not very polite". Later, Jessie finds a resourceful way to communicate with her distressed mum.
Scriptwriters throw some secondary characters into the mix, such as the tough female detective, Sandra (Esposito), who arrives in the nick of time to fire one crucial shot. The climax, set on Hart's Island outside New York, is disappointing, and includes a lot of grave-digging (literally).
Technically speaking, Don't Say A Word is a step down for director Gary Fleder, after Kiss The Girls and big screen debut Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. Fleder gives the film a proficient but unstylish look, failing to use his gifted crew, specifically cinematographer Amir Mokri and composer Mark Isham, to advantage. The only element Fleder exploits successfully is star Douglas.
Douglas became a superstar when he finally decided to play flawed characters with an edge, and act more like his florid father than like a bland TV personality. His track record with hot-button movies such as Wall Street and Disclosure will attract viewers to Don't Say A Word, which is perfectly watchable solely due to his charismatic presence.
Prod cos: Kopelson Entertainment, New Regency Pictures
US dist: 20th Century Fox
Int'l dist: Fox International
Exec prods: Jeffrey Downer, Bruce Berman
Prods: Arnon Milchan, Arnold Kopelson, Anne Kopelson
Scr: Anthony Peckhma, Patrick Smith Kelly based on Andrew Klavan's novel
Cinematography: Amir Mokri
Prod des: Nelson Coates
Eds: William Steinkamp, Armen Minasian
Music: Mark Isham
Main cast:Michael Douglas, Sean Bean, Brittany Murphy, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Famke Janssen, Oliver Platt, Jennifer Esposito