Is Jonathan Rhys Meyers coming for the Irish action hero crown?
In "97 Minutes," Rhys Meyers, 45, plays an Interpol agent named Alex who may be in over his head amongst a group of Russian separatists onboard a hijacked passenger plane.
This group of hoodlums is particularly vicious as they set about taking control of the flight from London to New York with their improvised but deadly 3D-printed guns.
They're clearly not the type to take prisoners and soon the walls of the flight attendant's quarters are sprayed with flight attendant blood, making the point early on that this story is unlikely to end well.
But will Alex find the opportunity to foil their plot and save the day? Or is he as dangerous and unpredictable as the terrorists that surround him?
On the ground, NSA Director Hawkins (Alec Baldwin) is making a critical calculation. Since they can't alter the plane's course or get in contact with Alex onboard, he orders two F16s into the air, who are just waiting for the go-ahead from the White House to blow this unfortunate passenger plane and all lives aboard out of the sky to protect the greater good.
Not so fast, says Agent Toyin (the always excellent Jo Martin,) we can reach our guy and help him save the day, just give us the time to let him get into action. She feels the greater good is to save all hands on board first, then worry about any impact.
I've just given you the basic plot points of "97 Minutes," which could be written on a napkin due to their brevity at the start of the film. But things start to get more complicated as this often by-the-numbers hijack caper revs up and finds its truer footing, which it very quickly does.
But there are some major problems early on too. Blink and you'll miss them plot points rise and fall as the camera jumps from one violent encounter to the next. Worse, characters seem drawn on a postage stamp to fulfill these plot points rather than give what happens any depth.
Worst of all, there are some truly incredible moments where the double agent nature of Alex's work is dramatically revealed in ways that strain all credulity. These moments take us out of the action and make us wonder who to root for in this hall of mirrors.
But I have to say it's also a pleasure to see Rhys Meyers so firmly back in the game these days after an alarming period following his mother's death in 2007, when erratic behavior and hard drinking became a problem in his personal life. But grief can do that to you so it's particularly heartening to see that he's righted the ship and sailed on to calmer waters.
His colorful background has been a part of his path to stardom, though. Having been kicked out of school for repeated truancy he used to kick around the pool halls of Cork where he was talent spotted for the 1993 film "War Of The Buttons," but didn't land a role. Instead, he found work in Dublin on a TV commercial for Knorr Soups which eventually saw him land the job of Michael Collin's assassin in Neil Jordan's famous biopic.
“That role didn't endear me to Ireland so I got the hell of dodge and I haven't lived there since,” he told the press a few years back. Now living full-time in London, with the accent to match, he is married to Mara Lane and the couple are raising a child.
The "97 Minutes" of the film's title is a reference to the amount of fuel that the hijacked plane has left before it will crash, by the way. The film begins with a countdown clock and it stays that way, not winning any awards for originality but not seeking them either.
In this way, Rhys Meyers's flick is a bit like one of those just-add water ramen noodle packs. You know that what you get will be good but not too good, it will fill you up but maybe leave you feeling like you really should have cooked something better.
Nothing about the film really leaves a lasting impact. Not the script, the story, the characters, or the performances. You could swap them out with a dozen other films in this genre without too much trouble. That means that the work is professional and seamless but it also means it's more than a bit bland.
What makes Liam Neeson's performances in thriller genres so good is the depth of character he brings to the characters he plays and the caliber of actors he's surrounded with. You could film school essays on Neeson's ability to elevate straightforward stories with Irish melancholy, guts, and determination, for which he still hasn't been given the credit he's due.
Rhys Meyers is a chisel-jawed supermodel in comparison, but lacking many of the emotional registers that Neeson can effortlessly play. For this reason, we can't quite trust his hidden good guy persona (is he really?) and that lack of trust often makes "97 Minutes" a tougher watch.
The CGI plane scenes look just a little too computer generated, matching the just a little too contrived setup inside of it. Jo Martin is wasted with lines that make her a billboard for expedition rather than emotion. Alec Baldwin gets to chew the scenery and I assume take home a sizable paycheck.
Growing more convoluted as it trundles along, the various plot lines and the big rug pull reveal moment don't land the way they were expected to, undermining the whole venture.
That's not to say "97 Minutes" isn't worth the time it takes to resolve itself. Rhys Meyers is eminently watchable if not quite winning in the lead role and the direction does keep the action moving even if it drops too many balls in terms of storytelling.
Rhys Meyers reminds us that when given a good script he can knock it out of the park as well as any Irish screen star, but this script and the often confusing drama that it results in isn't going to be the one to make this film a breakout hit.
"97 Minutes" is now available to stream on Vudu, Prime Video, Apple TV, or Redbox.