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Panic   B

Artisan Entertainment

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Henry Bromell
Writer: Henry Bromell
Cast: William H. Macy, Neve Campbell, Donald Sutherland, Tracey Ullman, John Ritter, David Dorfman, Barbara Bain.

Review by Rob Vaux

Panic is the kind of movie that reminds you of other movies, then turns that familiarity into an asset. A measured drama about a veteran hitman losing his way, it moves carefully through some well-worn material, searching methodically for a new spin on the mix. Thanks to its patience and self-discipline, it never quite succumbs to cliché, although at times it comes too close for its own good.

Of course, it never hurts to have someone like William H. Macy as your lead. Macy plays Alex, a fortysomething professional killer who's arrived at a midlife crisis. Trained from an early age by his calculating monster of a father (Donald Sutherland), he has spent the last 20 years working in the family business: Dad handles the negotiations and payment, while he does the wetwork. Now, after a lifetime of blood on his hands, he's finally coming to grips with the cost to his soul. What's a hitman to do? He can't go to his wife (a surprisingly effective Tracey Ullman), who thinks he runs a mail-order business, nor his mother (Barbara Bain), who forbids him from breaking Dad's heart. So naturally, he does what every killer is supposed to do in the movies these days: the finds a therapist.

Before you recoil in horror at the thought of yet another hitman/psychologist flick, keep in mind that Panic is as aware of the cliché as you. Instead of charging into such an increasingly hackneyed convention, it treads delicately around the edges, circling and probing for new ways to explore it. While Alex does indeed develop a rapport with his shrink (John Ritter, believe it or not), he finds greater solace in Sarah (Neve Campbell), the pretty young thing he meets in the waiting room and who seems to regard him as some kind of lost puppy. The shift from therapist to younger woman demonstrates how Panic weaves its way around multiple potentially derailing themes. Whenever it gets too close to one stereotype, it spins away towards another: from shrink to family dysfunction to criminal loyalty to May-September romance. In the process, it manages to find untouched corners in the spaces between these well-trod paths, and develops them into something new and interesting. Director Henry Bromell takes each step with measured care, perhaps afraid of what he'll land in if he doesn't. (He gets help from cinematographer Jeffry Juhr who gives the film an intriguing look that never becomes intrusive.) His methodical approach eschews flashy technique, relying instead on quiet implication and subtle cues which guide Panic away from the tired stereotypes which surround it.

Within this environment, Panic relies largely on the performances to lend it weight; in the end, it simply provides a solid stage for the actors to do their work. Macy heads the proceedings with the sort of sad-eyed empathy we've come to expect from him. We can feel his pain without doubting what he's capable of. He has a nice rapport with Campbell, whose quasi-femme fatale is one of the best roles she's ever had, and with Sutherland, who's had to show up in a lot of crap to find a role this juicy. Six-year-old David Dorfman has some compelling moments as well, playing Alex's son who perhaps understands his father better than anyone else. Because the action takes place largely beneath the surface, everyone in the ensemble makes a vital contribution. It's telling that in a film about a professional killer, the most emotionally charged scene is an argument between husband and wife.

If Panic has any faults, it's that it remains a trifle clinical in its approach. So careful is Bromell in his exposition that he risks robbing the film of any real meaning. But considering the pits he's dancing around, he can be forgiven for moving with care. One wrong step and Panic would be just another tired formula. Instead, its measured approach delivers an intriguing drama that finds new life in some increasingly threadbare places. I wouldn't want another film to try what Panic does, but its nice to know that some people can teach an old dog new tricks.

Review published 04.24.2001.

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