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'5ive' nights to suspend reality

Miniseries employs a timeworn formula to guess the mystery. And you'll probably be right.

June 07, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

In the cleverly spelled Sci-Fi Channel original miniseries, "5ive Days to Midnight," Timothy Hutton plays J.T. Neumeyer, a physics professor who, on the 10th anniversary of the birth of his daughter (Gage Golightly) and the death of his wife, finds a mysterious briefcase bearing his name. Inside is a file with photos and newspaper clippings and a police report detailing his own murder (cue organ stab) five days hence. In a clever bit of programming, which seems half-inspired by the show "24," the miniseries will run on five consecutive nights, each episode representing one of the days Neumeyer apparently has left to him.

It is strictly B-grade entertainment, but as it aims no higher, it is none the worse for it. If you find the premise attractive, you'll more than likely like the product, which generates a good deal of creaking-door suspense and holds interest across its broad expanse of hours. Hutton, who was once an important young actor, has found his level in character parts and TV movies and series; if he once looked like John Garfield, he has, in his early 40s, turned out to be Bob Cummings, which is not such a bad thing. Hitchcock would have been happy to use him, one feels.

At first Neumeyer considers the file an elaborate hoax, a natural enough reaction in this age of Photoshop. A helpfully included list of suspects includes a high-strung grad student (Hamish Linklater), his girlfriend (Kari Matchett) and his brother-in-law (David McIlwraith), none of whom has any apparent reason to kill him, and a fourth whom he has not heard of but who will turn out to be Angus MacFadyen, who was in "Braveheart."

But as unfolding events start to mirror those reported in the file, and the photographs of his corpse are proved genuine, and the dark secrets of his nearest and dearest start to spill out over his previously sunny life, Neumeyer is forced to believe what the viewer will have long since deduced. One look at its sleek lines and shiny metal skin announces that this briefcase has arrived from the future, if the fact that the movie is on a network called the Sci-Fi Channel has not made that obvious enough. You should also be able to work out, in no time at all and without using a pencil, who sent it to him, though the filmmakers regard this bit of information as surprising enough to leave it until the series' final moments.

The time-travel logic sometimes breaks down, as it always must, and one occasionally gets the sense that the writers -- in expanding what was originally conceived as a two-hour teleplay into a five-hour miniseries -- were themselves confused by the extremely tangled web they were trying to weave. None of this matters much. Watching a truly bad movie, one resents the potholes and plot holes, but if you're being carried along at sufficient speed, you may note them as they go by but not really feel them, not so it hurts. (The willful suspension of disbelief is not a given; it must be earned.)

As in the good old crime-solving days of Philo Vance and Charlie Chan and Nick Charles -- here you get Randy Quaid as police Det. Irwin Sikorski -- each suspect has an equally weighty motive. (Or motives: Potential ones arise as Neumeyer attempts to alter the present in light of the unacceptable future.)

Eventually it seems that everyone has a gun and is rushing crazily to the Buck Naked strip bar (where, this being basic cable, nobody actually gets naked) to help the professor keep or avoid his date with destiny, of which there may or not be any such thing.

Up until the very end, we might find any of them on the trigger end of the murder weapon, though the script does ultimately adhere to a timeworn formula: Star power times screen time divided by apparent innocence = whodunnit. But if the denouement is no big deal -- the conundrums in mystery and in sci-fi films alike being invariably more interesting than the answers mere mortal screenwriters invent -- there are smoke and alarums enough to compensate.


'5ive Days to Midnight'

Where: Sci-Fi Channel

When: Premieres 9 to 11 tonight. Parts 2 through 4 air 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Part 5 is 8 to 9 p.m. Friday.

Timothy Hutton...J.T. Neumeyer

Randy Quaid...Irwin Sikorski

Kari Matchett...Claudia Whitney

Gage Golightly...Jesse Neumeyer

Hamish Linklater...Carl Axelrod

Angus MacFadyen...Roy Bremmer

David McIlwraith...Brad Hume

Executive producers David Kirschner, Corey Sienega, Tony Peckham and David Aaron Cohen. Writers Cohen and Cindy Meyers. Director Michael Watkins.

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