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Hired gun is trapped in the family business in the the terrific'Panic'

Friday, May 25, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A hitman is smitten by a pretty brunette in the waiting room of his therapist's office. Revisiting the best of "The Sopranos"?

No, describing a terrific, tension-laced movie called "Panic," starring William H. Macy as a second-generation killer who wants out of the family business. A silky smooth Donald Sutherland is his father, a man who can quietly threaten his son one minute and impulsively sweep the barroom waitress into a dance to "Behind Closed Doors" the next.

Movie Review


RATING: R for language and violence.

STARRING: William H. Macy, Donald Sutherland

DIRECTOR: Henry Bromell



In the sort of casting that shouldn't inflame Italian-Americans, Macy plays Alex, a very tightly wound husband and father. He runs a small mail-order business out of his home but apparently earns his real money by carrying out contract hits. Dad handles the arrangements and then, over a businessman's lunch of chicken a la king, slips Alex a photo of the intended victim and the particulars. The deal and the hit are two separate acts; it helps with plausible deniability.

But Alex is having a murderous mid-life crisis. "Do you ever get the feeling you're dead? Like a dog hit by a car and left to rot," he asks his therapist (a dark-haired, bearded and bespectacled John Ritter). The blackness temporarily lifts, however, when he encounters another patient, a 23-year-old hair stylist named Sarah (Neve Campbell), in the waiting room. She has a rather active and equal-opportunity sex life, it turns out.

Alex's wife, Martha (Tracey Ullman), knows nothing of his secret life as a killer. Neither, of course, does their adorable son Sammy (David Dorfman), a bright and inquisitive 6-year-old who asks his father questions about God and infinity and death.

When Alex confides to his mother (Barbara Bain) that he's seeing a psychologist and wants to quit the business, she bristles. "You've suddenly got scruples?" She insists his defection would break his father's heart, and she simply refuses to entertain the notion.

As Alex tries to extricate himself from the business, his father hands over information about the next client -- which exacerbates his tailspin. The movie plants a series of questions, ratcheting up the tension with each one. Will Alex kill the next target? Sleep with Sarah? Break free from his father? Repair his frayed marriage? You're rooting for Alex to do the right thing, even as you realize what an impossible trap he's caught in. When the answers to the questions finally arrive, they're explosive.

Macy, most recently a harried film director in "State and Main" and a grown-up quiz kid in "Magnolia," excels at playing tightly coiled characters. You can almost sense his pulse racing and his blood pressure rising, as his blue eyes provide a barometer for his sadness and anxiety. Still, Alex is enough of an expert at his job that he can dispatch a victim with chilling, by-the-numbers efficiency.

As good as Macy is, Sutherland may just be better. He can pour on the charm, flashing those oversize white teeth, and then launch into a diatribe about how women are vipers. The perfectly coiffed Bain is still a cool customer, reminding us why she won three Emmys in a row in the late 1960s for "Mission: Impossible," while Ullman handles her confused, hurt wife with ease and young Dorfman is astonishing.

If you find yourself asking why Alex didn't extricate himself from this business earlier, you see how he was indoctrinated and inducted. How the grandparents treat Sammy provides a window into what Alex's childhood must have been like; no wonder this guy needs a shrink.

Written and directed by Henry Bromell, "Panic" shares some similarities with "The Sopranos," but Macy has no captains and confidants to commiserate with. He's alone, a state that is emphasized in the empty plazas and streets he traverses.

"Panic" has a tortured past that includes festival showings, a Cinemax airing and a scattered theatrical release. I'm happy it's stopping here before it heads to a video shelf near you.

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