They say there's nothing new under the sun, and that's especially apt in sunny Hollywood. So it's tempting to ask, merely as a theoretical exercise, "can you make a movie that is essentially a model kit assembled from other movies, and still make it effective?" "Don't Say a Word" proves that the answer is "Yes." WHY you would want to set out to do such a thing is another question; you'll have to ask the producers about it.
In the movie, Michael Douglas plays an affluent, happily married psychologist who has to contend (as Michael Douglas does in every movie), with a seriously disturbed woman. The femme-looney in this outing is Elizabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy), a 10-year, 20-institution veteran with enough contradictory diagnoses to sink a DSM textbook. He is called in to consult by a colleague (Oliver Platt) and then is bewildered as a shadowy band of Bad Guys snatch his daughter and demand that he work his famed empathy thing with poor Britt and get her to give him a ten-digit number that they need. Her dad, it seems, ripped them off during the heist of a precious red jewel, and they need the number to find it. Douglas figures out that while she has problems of her own, Elizabeth has been confounding her doctors by imitating various symptoms, in effect, staying institutionalized to hide from the evildoers. Me, I would have gone to Tahiti; to each his own.
The kidnap-flick tropes then come in fast and heavy: the Panicked Discovery, the Initial Phone Call, The List of Rules (no cops, yada yada), "No Deal Til I Talk to My Daughter", the Desperate Clock-Race Across Town, the Tough Female Detective trying to Figure It All Out, and more. We get a host of other familiar faces, too: the Bad Guys are a band of high-tech thieves (which are so common in movies, they must have a hell of a union), with black leather jackets, sleek laptops, and a guy whose job during the robbery is to stand in the middle of the bank with a stopwatch calling off the time, as though they were at the Olympic trials for the 100-meter Felony.
But all this is skillfully handled, with just enough tweaks to the familiar formulas to make it feel fresh. At one point, Douglas makes the kidnappers relocate to meet him, a nice twist on the usual "kidnappers run the bagman all over town" scene. And the bit with the mental patient, well, it beats can-we-raise-the-money-in-time? For his part, Michael Douglas does well, though he is a little too slick to portray besieged decent men. My hunch is that Harrison Ford was first choice to play this role. Famke Janssen is good as his wife. Though the script gives her little to do, she is really the one who makes us feel the panic and despair that attend the abduction of a child, and though it's a familiar movie scenario, it is still able to play on the nerves quite effectively. The little girl playing Douglas' daughter does well, too, cute but not cloying, smart but credible; there is an amusing scene where she attempts to make conversation with the hulking, tattooed murderer who is guarding her, eventually cajoling him into making peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches. And, carrying on the proud tradition started by Alyssa Milano in "Commando", does her level best to foil her captors.
The Bad Guys are a little disappointing. They are assigned quirks rather than characters (one never appears to have a name). As the head villain, Sean Bean makes what he can of his feral charisma, but he literally phones this performance in. I think the poor guy is doomed to spend the rest of his career playing Hibernian heavies in leather jackets. Their operation seems a little too well-orchestrated, especially since the movie supposedly take place less than three weeks after they've been sprung after doing a dime in Attica (where one guesses they studied electronic eavesdropping in between lifting weights). And while the movie doesn't say how much the priceless rock is worth, by my estimation, after splitting the proceeds and covering their overhead, surveillance equipment, and tattoos, the gang should have just enough left for a celebratory lunch at the IHOP.
The best performance is by Brittany Murphy as the twitchy, wary Elizabeth. With her weird hand gestures and tuneless singing, this character could have been really annoying. But Murphy makes her guileless and affecting. Watching her stare out her barred window at the tugboats in the river, your heart breaks just a little.
The story is not always credible, especially the parts involving Jennifer Esposito as the detective, who is really a sideshow anyway. We also see several New Yorkers who are surprisingly pliant when deprived of everything from cell phones to speedboats. And the parents adhere blindly to the "don't tell the cops" rule, even after it is laughably impractical to do so.
The thing that really makes the movie work is the setting and the way it is shot by director Gary Fleder, who made the underrated "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead". Fleder puts us in claustophobic, oppressive places, from underground morgues to puke-green institution hallways with prison doors and disturbing graffiti, to the fog-shrouded darkness of Potter's Field, graveyard of the anonymous dead of New York City. Even Douglas' luxury apartment seems at tight quarters, and these places are filmed in such a way to make this close to a horror movie. The dark climax is formulaic, but give a neat twist in location. The number, incidentally, doesn't refer to an uplink code or satellite designation or encryption key or any of the usual millenial McGuffins of late. What it represents is something surprising, sad, and refreshingly old-fashioned. Which kind of goes for the rest of the movie as well.