Two-Minute Warning emerged from Universal Studios during an era where they were cranking out a lot of disaster movies. It’s often lumped in with those films but actually has more to offer. Despite a disaster movie hook inherent to its premise, it’s actually a sophisticated mixture of thriller, ensemble drama and police procedural. It’s also one of the more underrated thrillers of the ’70s.
Two-Minute Warning was adapted from a George LaFountaine novel by Edward Hume and takes place at a major football game in L.A. Plot threads are set up as a variety of people make their way into the stadium: there’s a gambler (Jack Klugman) whose life is riding on the game’s outcome who finds himself sitting next to a kindly priest (Mitchell Ryan), a man (Beau Bridges) who has recently lost his job but decides to take his family to the game, a middle-aged couple on edge because the man (David Janssen) refuses to commit to his free-spirited girlfriend (Gena Rowlands), etc.
None of these people know that a sniper has taken a hiding place overlooking the stadium’s interior. When the cops are tipped off to the sniper’s presence, police captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston) has to team up with S.W.A.T. sergeant Button (John Cassavetes) to figure out how to take the sniper down without causing a panic amongst the spectators. Unfortunately, the sniper is as good a shot as he is crazy and everyone from the cops to the patrons is in terrible danger.
Two-Minute Warning is kind of like Black Sunday in that it holds off the disaster movie carnage until the final act (interestingly, both also have finales set in football stadiums). Hume’s script builds up the tension by deftly intercutting the various plot threads with the progression of the faceless sniper’s potential as a killer. Though the first half of the film is light on action, the constant crosscutting creates a snappy pace – editors Walter Hannemann and Eve Newman were nomitated for an Oscar for their work here.
It’s also worth noting that Two-Minute Warning uses its disaster-movie star power to keep the audience engaged. The characterizations are simple but likeable, with some amusing dialogue to push the individual scenarios along, and the actors provide some lively work to keep it afloat: Bridges is compelling in a difficult role that forces him to be neurotic early on, Janssen and Rowlands create a troubled chemistry that makes their subplot work and Klugman and Ryan are winning as a couple of opposites who build up a charming friendship as the game goes along.
Heston and Cassavetes are also intriguing as the reluctant hero duo. Essentially, both are cast against type, with Heston taking on the role of a world-weary cynic you might expect Cassavetes to play while Cassavetes enjoys a rare opportunity to play a stoic man-of-action type. Both inhabit their roles nicely: Heston gets to show off his underrated skill for sardonic humor and Cassavetes brings a controlled intensity to the S.W.A.T. captain that shows he could play a conventional hero in a convincing manner. Elsewhere, the backing cast also includes such notables as Martin Balsam, Walter Pidgeon, David Groh and Brock Peters. Simply put, it’s a feast for character actor fans – you even get an amusing cameo from erstwhile director Andy Sidaris in his pre-directing day job as a testy live sports show director.
The second half of Two-Minute Warning pays off the first half’s build-up beautifully. Director Larry Peerce was better known for dramas but he shows a knack for large-scale suspense here, delivering several tense skirmishes between sniper and law enforcement before a massive finale that involves suspense, action and large-scale destruction. His work is aided immensely by a top above-the-line crew: in addition to the aforementioned taut edition, Charles Fox delivers a tense musical score highlighted by a mournfully melodic main theme and Gerald Hirschfeld’s Cinemascope lensing brings an epic visual quality to match the sprawling narrative.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Two-Minute Warning has a power to it that goes beyond the usual disaster movie/suspense thriller excitement. Its choice of a faceless, disturbed sniper as a villain has sadly gained resonance with the passage of time: given the all-too-common occurence of mass shootings in the United States, having a rifle-toting psycho for a villain feels disturbingly prescient. Even when you factor in the soap opera-style drama of the subplots, seeing so many likeable characters threatened by the spectre of unmotivated killing will have a painful from-the-headlines gravity for today’s audiences.
In short, Two-Minute Warning is one of the forgotten gems of the ’70s thriller world. Not only does it generate tension with skill, it resonates with current events in a way that sadly remains thought-provoking 50 years later.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory just issued a high-def version of this title. The transfer offers a good presentation of the film’s carefully-composed ‘scope photography, with a nice level of detail and depth. The mono audio is presented is lossless form and it’s a well-balanced track free of distortion or other defects.
Though not a special edition, this disc also offers a few noteworthy extras. Beyond some radio spots and the expected trailer and image gallery combo, there is also an interview with Peerce (25:35). He devotes a lot of time to warm, often witty memories of different cast and crew members – there’s a funny Jack Klugman story – and also reveals the film’s one big bit of visual effects and the technical challenges of the shoot.
Even better, Shout! Factory has thrown in the infamous t.v. version of the film (2:21:00). This is not a mere edited-for-content version of film: instead, it features 40-odd minutes worth of new footage that reworked the plot for an event-night network screening. The new footage is geared towards changing the film into a story about a group of thieves trying to pull off an art heist (!). The new footage has an impressive cast, including Joanna Pettet and James Olson, and even Heston got roped in for a trio of new scenes. It’s awful in a fascinating way and a fascinating oddity for cult movie collectors.
Bonus Reading: If that t.v. version interests you, Schlockmania recommends you check out the excellent article on the film’s t.v. re-edit/redux over at Video Junkie, which gives you a detailed breakdown of the changes and the motivation behind them.