Two genres flourished in the 1970s: the disaster epic and the realistic crime film. Two-Minute Warning is a curious but entertaining hybrid of the two. Its main star, Charlton Heston, was himself something of a specialist in the disaster genre, having made Skyjacked, Airport 1975 and Earthquake before this film. Two-Minute Warning, about a psychotic sniper loose in a packed football stadium during the Superbowl, proves the most interesting of these, though much less so for its disaster movie elements than its far more gripping police procedural ones.
The film’s first hour is a slow burn as all the disparate characters make their way to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the big game (never called the Superbowl, for obvious reasons, but clearly intended as such). In similar fashion to Dirty Harry, the film opens from the sniper’s point-of-view, as he takes out a random cyclist as a sort of dry run. Unlike the Eastwood film, we never get a good look at the sniper until the very end. Instead, we get a lot more POV shots of him checking out of his hotel, driving his car to the stadium, and sneaking his way up into a vantage point above the scoreboard.
Big Chuck Heston on the case.
We also get introduced to the typical disaster movie cast of name actors, all en route to the game. We have contentious lovers David Janssen and Gena Rowlands; gambler Jack Klugman, in deep to the Mob and his life riding on the bet he placed on the final score; Walter Pidgeon as an elderly pickpocket; and Beau Bridges and Pamela Bellwood as a young couple on a fun day out with their two young sons. We also get brief scenes establishing LAPD Captain Peter Holly (Heston), SWAT team leader Sgt. Button (John Cassavetes), stadium manager Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam) and head maintenance man Paul (Brock Peters).
SWAT leader Sgt. Button (John Cassevetes)
There’s just enough of that docudrama feel so prevalent in 70s movies, plus lots of time capsule real crowd footage, to keep the film’s deliberate set-up interesting. But the movie really starts to hum when one of the TV crew covering the game spots the sniper in one of the Goodyear blimp camera feeds and alerts the police. Soon Heston, Cassavetes and his super-cool SWAT team swing into action, and the superior crime drama side of the movie takes over.
The disaster film side comes back with a vengeance in the surprisingly violent final 20 minutes when the game’s two-minute warning starts and all manner of holy hell breaks loose. I was expecting the typical ending for films of this type: the ratcheting up of tension until the final few minutes, with Heston, Cassavetes and company taking out the killer in the nick of time, panic averted. I should have realized that 70s movies don’t play that safe. What we get instead is sheer pandemonium on an epic scale, very realistically depicted. We even get our fateful shootout between cops and the killer as well, just to tick all the boxes. And in a refreshingly true-to-life touch, we never do find out what the killer's motivation is.
Any way you slice it, the ending is a doozy.
Heston and Cassavetes have fun with their undemanding roles, doing solid work but mostly coasting on their effortless natural charisma. The physical production is quite effective, and little-known director Larry Peerce skillfully marshalls all the busy crowd scenes and other logistical hurdles into a coherent whole. There are some quietly eerie early shots of the empty coliseum, nicely bookended by the apocalyptic aftermath visible in the film’s closing shots.
David Janssen and Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes' real-life wife)
Some fun faces can be caught in small roles. Mitchell Ryan (the main baddie from Lethal Weapon) is the priest who lends some comfort to Klugman. The director of the TV network team is played by infamous B-movie schlockmeister Andy Sidaris, while 80s action star Robert Ginty pops up as a snack vendor. And there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit with Larry Manetti (“Rick” from Magnum, P.I.) as one of the SWAT team members.
A fun movie with a GREAT ending.
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