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Rising above the lurid material, Al Pacino gives ‘Hangman’ his all

Al Pacino (right) stars with Karl Urban and Brittany Snow in "Hangman." | SABAN FILMS/LIONSGATE

Ah, that Al Pacino. So many times over the decades, he has played world-weary life veterans who find themselves saying in one way or another:

Just when I thought I was out …

Well. You know the rest. It’s never really over for the wise and exhausted and cynical sad-eyed Pacino character, who has seen it all and done it all and would prefer to be left alone — but cannot resist when Duty or Obligation or The Past come knocking at his door.

In the lurid, blood-soaked and pulpy serial killer B-movie “Hangman,” Pacino admirably commits to the material and his character and his lines, even when he’s saddled with clunkers such as, “So what are ya SAYIN’ to me?”

It’s like watching a rock legend taking the stage in present day to jam with a talented but utterly derivative cover band — and treating the gig like he’s onstage with the Stones in 1975. There’s not a trace of condescension or phoning it in. He’s AL PACINO!

The trailer fully embraces the Pacino legacy, proclaiming, “A grisly case from the past … will pull him back in.”

At 77, nearly 45 years after playing a bearded and idealistic New York City detective in the Sidney Lumet classic “Serpico,” Pacino sports a fashionable goatee and a spiky ‘do and layers of monochromatic clothing as Archer, a retired detective in Monroe, Louisiana, who spends his days doing crossword puzzles (in Latin!) and cracking wise in a fantastically over-the-top Southern accent.

Those word skills might come in handy when a serial killer initiates a deadly game of “Hangman,” etching a letter into the chests of his victims, as well as a drawing of the children’s game with a new letter added at each crime scene.

When the killer carves Archer’s old badge number into a classroom desk, Monroe Police Detective Ruiney (a perpetually grim-faced Karl Urban) enlists Archer’s help in solving the case. Complicating matters (in a sometimes wildly unrealistic fashion) is the presence of Brittany Snow’s Christi Davies, a New York Times reporter who grew up in Monroe and has returned to her hometown.

“With all the tensions between police officers and civilians lately, I wanted to get some insight,” explains Christi.

OK. Even though that’s not what this movie is about.

Christi has been given carte blanche to not just tag along on the “Hangman” investigation, but to effectively join Ruiney and Archer as an equal partner — traipsing all over active crime investigation scenes, tracking down leads, sitting in on interviews, etc. For a sophisticated journalist, she’s often clunky and careless and sometimes clueless — but once in a while, she comes up with a key piece of information that has somehow eluded the professionals.

When Archer derisively refers to Christi as a member of the “paparazzi” (which indicates Archer MIGHT not be too familiar with the New York Times, even though he’s Mister Crossword Puzzle), Christi snaps back with, “Sir, I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize!”

I’d like to take a look at those stories that got you so close to the prize, Christi.

As the body count piles up (with director Johnny Martin staging some impressively awful murder scenes that make us wonder if he watched “Se7en” multiple times just before starting this shoot), we get some truly bizarre moments, as when the girlfriend of a victim is brought in for questioning — and when left alone, slits her own wrists with the jagged edges of a soda can.

Which leads to one main character berating his colleagues: “What the HELL were you two thinking, leaving a soda can in the room [with her]?”

Is suicide by soda can a common occurance in interrogation rooms? Who knew?

In its own cheesy and entertaining way, “Hangman” kept me guessing throughout. Could it be Detective Ruiney is the Hangman? Is crusading journalist Christi “Sir, I was nominated for a Pulitzer!” Davies hiding a secret? Could it possibly be our man Archer knows more than he’s letting on?

And just when we think we’ve got it figured out and it’s all over, they pull us …

You know.

★★★

Saban Films and Lionsgate present a film directed by Johnny Martin and written by Michael Caissie, Charles Huttinger and Phil Hawkins. Rated R (for violent content, bloody images, and language). Running time: 98 minutes. Available on demand; opens Friday at AMC Woodridge.