Posted: Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Al Pacino is the one actor I can think of who is not fighting desperately against old age. He's embracing it. There's no Botox for Al, no sir. Every line, every wrinkle, every gray hair is just another tool in the master's box. The worse he looks, the better he gets, and, thirty years ago, as smooth-faced Michael Corleone he was already pretty good. In his latest endeavor, Insomnia, Pacino uses his worn down demeanor to maximum effect and rescues what could have been a rather typical throw-away thriller.

Pacino plays Detective Dormer, a legendary L.A. cop who, with his partner has been called to assist in a grisly homicide in a little town in Alaska. As the story unfolds, however, we realize that there is more to this assignment than meets the eye. Dormer and his department, Robbery /Homicide, are in big trouble back home. Internal Affairs is crashing through his ranks like a bull in a china shop, and Dormer knows he is next. Seems he engaged in a little creative evidence gathering a few years back. Now he's going to have to answer for that, and Alaska seems like a good place to hide out. Worse yet, Dormer's partner is threatening to turn state's evidence and cut a deal to save himself. With all this hanging over his head, it's a wonder Dormer can even come close to concentrating on the case at hand: the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl whose body has been so meticulously cared for and cleaned of evidence, that it suggests a serial killer in the making. After a terrible accident on a stakeout of the killer's hideaway, Dormer begins a downward spiral punctuated with frequent calls from the killer expressing sympathy and, worse, solidarity. This, coupled with the lack of sleep brought on by guilt and the "24-hour" sun of the Alaskan summer, is too much. Dormer begins to crack.

This film's greatest strength is it's acting. As I mentioned, Pacino is incredible. He plays the punch-drunk Dormer exactly right, without slipping over into caricature, as he did in Scent of a Woman. Knowing the method style Pacino likes to employ in his roles, it wouldn't surprise me if he really did stay awake through most of the filming. Also superb is Robin Williams as Finch, detective novelist and murderer. Instead of the criminal mastermind you might expect he'd have to play in order to match wits with Pacino, he is, instead, an average guy, trying to live out one of his pulp novels. There's a desperate tension underlying his surface calm, cool demeanor. This is the second in a trio of villains Williams is playing this year. First was in the critically maligned Death to Smoochy, and next will be as a deranged photo-mat jockey in One-Hour Photo. Also good, but with a much more secondary role than you'd expect from a Best Actress winner, is Hillary Swank. She is the detective-in-training and becomes Dormer's protege though, thankfully, there is no love affair between them. The best actor in the film by far, however, has to go to the city of Vancouver, for once again convincing us that it is somewhere else entirely.

Yes, big surprise, I know, this movie was not filmed in Alaska. This was especially disappointing to us Alaskans who, since we don't get many movies set in our great state, were furiously trying to figure out where the mythical town of Nightmute really was. "That's gotta be Seward." "No, but it could be near Ketchikan, I think I recognize that mountain." "But isn't that Mendenhall Glacier?" You know we felt pretty stupid when the credits thanked the good people of Vancouver, British Columbia for welcoming the film crew to their fair town. I can't blame Canada, however. Canada encourages film crews with low taxes and other incentives. Alaska does not. I, for one, think we should have a film commission in this state to do just what Texas has done. Bring movie makers here. What more exciting and exotic locale exists in the United States that has had so little exposure? Get people up here and maybe we can have a real Iditarod movie, instead of the kiddie throw-away Snow Dogs, Get 'em up here and really film something in Homer or Juneau or Seward. Alaska is an amazing place, but most people from Outside think it all looks like British Columbia.

Insomnia is an enjoyable, tense thriller with just enough extra meat to it to keep you involved the whole time. Though I expected more from director Christopher Nolan, the man who brought us the incredible Memento, I guess the fact that he doesn't get buried under his first big budget is good enough. While the movie is engaging, it's not terribly surprising or twisty-turny. It's definitely not going to put you to sleep, but it won't keep you up nights, either. Grade: B

Insomnia is rated R for language, violence, and brief nudity.

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