Al Pacino doesn’t show up in Hangman for quite some time. Despite being the marquee name above the title, the old-school thesp who’s played convincingly grizzled hotshot detectives plenty of times before, from Michael Mann’s Heat to Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, is introduced with all the urgency of a morning cup of coffee. Quite literally, as he is seen doing crossword puzzles with his warm beverage in a parked car. This is how Pacino’s Det. Archer, a retired gumshoe who was on the force for 40 years, is introduced, as well as why his ex-partner laughs, “Shouldn’t you be fishing?”
Who says he isn’t? Oh sure, while Pacino is technically on the set of this film, sauntering from scene to scene like the emcee of a particularly baroque game of after-dinner charades, he generally isn’t any more present here than he’d be on the back of a boat somewhere watching a fishing lure bob up and down in the surf. And it’s not like there’s anything even that exciting at risk of occurring in this painfully by-the-numbers serial killer thriller that, if not for the digital photography, might’ve convincingly passed for a ‘90s B-movie someone forgot to take off the shelf 20 years ago.
The poor guy who is left to try and will this macabre malaise into some kind of cohesive yarn is Karl Urban as Det. Ruiney. Always the chameleon, Urban commits to every role big or small, be it in a quality film or schlock, and bless him if he doesn’t try to make Ruiney more than the sum of his clichés. As a former Fed agent who gave up a career in D.C. to go home after his estranged wife was gruesomely murdered a year ago, Ruiney pads his days in the same small police office he started in when a serial killer begins his game.
As insinuated in the title, there is a mysterious killer who brings Pacino’s Archer out of retirement by staging elaborate crime scenes for each of his murder victims; he also writes Archer and Ruiney’s badge numbers in desks, forcing them to rejoin forces. Yet his true masterstroke is leaving a game of Hangman on a nearby chalkboard or some such, filling in one letter with each new hanged victim every 24 hours. Thus as Pacino is busy dancing with himself in the background, passing the hours with one chomped-piece of scenery at a time, it’s unfortunately left to Urban to say with a straight face, “Judging by the game board, he’s going to kill seven more people.” The prospect of that many impending set-pieces is a threat in more ways than one.
Hangman is a movie that time forgot. For once upon a time, serial killers were as much in vogue for medium budgeted, adult fare as superheroes are now with audiences who never want to grow up. Sadly, however, there is very little adult about Hangman. As directed by Johnny Martin with all the suspense of a really gory episode of NCIS, this police procedural lacks the commitment necessary to fuel its familiar premise with anything resembling tension or even the ability to invest concern for its hapless buddy heroes. The 98-minute exercise in body bag banality genuinely does resemble formulaic broadcast television, which makes the fact it cast talent like Urban and an admittedly sleepy Pacino (who I think is attempting a Southern accent) all the more baffling. Marquee names are great, but not when the material isn’t even worthy of hanging above a defunct grindhouse cinema.
While the set-pieces are as dead as the mangled corpses found hanging throughout the film—save for one instance where the film spends most of its non-Pacino budget on blowing up a car with the onslaught of an incoming train—the picture attempts to give some meager weight to its heroes by including a wasted Brittany Snow. An appealing presence, Snow is introduced early (if unconvincingly) as Christi Davies, a Pulitzer nominated New York Times journalist who behaves more like a student trying to break out of her college paper. The hook is that she is going to dig into the backstory of the two cops, but she is primarily a victim in waiting who they’ll inevitably have to save in the third act. There’s even the ludicrous moment where, after a high-stakes car chase that ended in a major wreck, Urban warns Snow, without a shred of irony, “This could be getting dangerous.” It wouldn’t have played any sillier than if she were already wearing her noose in that moment.
Hangman is an empty and perfunctory experience that is aware it’s every bit the time-filler as the crossword puzzle Pacino is doing when entering the picture. No, we’re not watching Pacino while he’s fishing, but it probably would have been more fun to do so. At least the marine life would give him something to play with.
Hangman opens in theaters on Friday, Dec. 22 and is on demand now.