3 - 2 - 1 ... There's nothing like a ticking time bomb to give any movie a sense of urgency. Whether it's a literal set of explosives (as in Speed), a new ice age (The Day After Tomorrow), alien attack (Independence Day), hostage execution (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), fatal poison (Crank), or the threat of loved ones being killed (Nick of Time), it's an honorable tradition to ratchet up the tension by pitting heroic characters in a relentless race against the clock.
This week marks the home video release of Alex Proyas' Knowing, a somewhat insane thriller in which astrophysicist Nicolas Cage comes to believe that future disasters can be predicted -- and races against time to stop the next one. You have to see it to believe (or mock) it. If you're in a countdown frame of mind, here are seven more entertaining thrillers that feature seriously motivated heroes trying to avert disaster. Consider this a starter list; see if you can be the first one to list your favorite(s) in the comments section. Go!
7. Back to the Future (1985)
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is just an ordinary high school student, doing a favor for good old Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) when he finds himself transported back in time 30 years. Before he knows what's happening, he's dodging Oedipal issues and trying to make sure his parents fall in love before he is gone, baby, gone. He is highly-motivated, to say the least, resulting in a pulse-quickening race in which a literal clock plays a major role.
6. Escape From New York (1981)
Instead of The Dirty Dozen, it's The Dirty One. Hardened criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 24 hours to find the crash-landed President of the United States in a Manhattan that's been transformed into a maximum security prison for the worst scum on Earth (which wasn't such a stretch for Manhattan in 1981). Either that or he gets blown up. You get the feeling that Snake doesn't really care whether he lives or dies, he just wants to prove the bastards (i.e. everyone else) wrong. No matter: John Carpenter's science fiction action thriller moves like a bug on fire.
5. Ringu (1998)
If video killed the radio star, then curiosity killed the videotape. Watch a certain weird, mysterious, disturbing videotape, and die in seven days. Hideo Nakata's film is a superb horror / mystery / thriller concoction: first you have to figure out what the heck you've just seen, then decide if it should be taken seriously, and then decipher what it all means. Oh, and try to keep your child from watching it, too. Absolutely haunting, and absolutely freaked me out when I first watched it in the middle of the night -- seven days ago. Uh, oh ...
4. D.O.A. (1950)
Edmond O'Brien strides into a police station. "I want to report a murder," he says. He's asked: "Who was murdered?" He replies: "I was." Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite live up to its astoundingly good premise. But the idea of a man trying to solve his own murder -- he's been poisoned and has only days to live -- is so striking that it's been plundered early and often (hello, Crank!), and thus remains one of my favorite ticking time bomb flicks.
3. Run Lola Run (1998)
Forget about deadlines of one week or one day or even one hour. Tom Tykwer telescopes everything down to 20 minutes. Lola (Franka Potente), with flaming red hair and a shocking blue tank top, has 20 minutes to somehow obtain a huge sum of money, or else her idiot boyfriend will rob a store to get the money. The movie kidnaps your nervous system, stomps on it for 20 minutes at a time, hands it back to you, and then rips it back out of your grasp for another 20 minutes of over-caffeinated tension. And then once again ...
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) thinks he's got nightmares. He does, of course, but it's nothing compared to poor Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the unwitting pawn in a chess game whose players remain a mystery to him. Director John Frankenheimer expertly juggles brainwashing, a dysfunctional family, and a political conspiracy -- not to mention a chilling performance by Angela Lansbury -- into a runaway train of a thriller.
1. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
A ticking time bomb was almost too easy for Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, whose films could easily fill this entire list and swamp it with a host of honorable mentions. I'll pick just one, though: Hitchcock's American remake of his own 1934 British original. (The unique trailer is embedded above.) It speaks volumes that I don't care much for Doris Day but it doesn't really matter. Hitchcock could sweep you up in the adventure and carry you along without much resistance. It's not as emotionally resonant as Vertigo or Rear Window, nor as colorfully entertaining as North by Northwest, but there's something about James Stewart's nuanced performance and the perfectly resolute way in which nice, normal people deal with being placed in harm's way that's very appealing. The cherry on top is the time-driven plot, which moves everything forward with incredible momentum.