If one genre was to stand out in the 70s that would be the disaster genre; Airport (1970), The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), Avalanche (1978), Damnation Alley (1979), The Swarm (1978) and Meteor (1979) just to name a few, inundated theatres in the 70s. What makes Two-Minute Warning stand out among these is that one doesn’t normally consider a mad sniper a disaster, even if it’s at championship football game. Sure it can really ruin your whole day but is a guy with a gun on par with a tidal wave overturning a luxury liner or a meteor heading for Earth? Yet this film was marketed as a disaster movie, and it even had the standard “actor boxes” that appear at the bottom of most 70s disaster movie posters, which unfortunately resulted in the film being a disaster but not in the way the studio had hoped.
Two-Minute Warning may not have the awesome spectacle of The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno but it does have the same formula for its casting; collect a large number of relatively known actors, give them quirky backstories, and then throw them in danger. In the category of innocent bystanders the film gives us Stu Sandman (Jack Klugman) a gambler who owes a great deal of money to his bookie and if his team loses he will be killed, he’s sitting next to a kindly priest (Mitchell Ryan) who got tickets from the aging quarterback, then we have elderly pickpocket (Walter Pidgeon) and his young accomplice (Juli Bridges) who the film cuts to randomly to show them lifting wallets, next we have a young married couple Mike (Beau Bridges) and Peggy Ramsay (Pamela Bellwood) who have come to the big game with their kids despite Mike recently losing his job, next is Al (David Groh) a football fan who begins flirting with Lucy (Marilyn Hassett) when he notices her date (Jon Korkes) is more interested in the game than in her, and finally we have Steve (David Jansen) and Janet (Gena Rowlands), an argumentative middle-aged couple who bicker throughout the movie because if you don’t have an estranged couple in your disaster movie you’ve missed one of the most standard tropes of the genre.
Then we have the characters who are scrambling to save the day; stadium manager Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam), Paul (Brock Peters) the stadium’s maintenance director, who stupidly tries to take on the sniper by himself, Police Captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston) as the film’s chief hero who is called in to handle the emergency, and he will butt heads with SWAT team Sergeant Chris Button (John Cassavetes) on how to handle the situation. And of course we can’t forget the mad sniper (Warren Miller) who without him we wouldn’t have a movie, yet there really isn’t much to his character, he’s mostly treated like the shark from Jaws. We first “meet” him as he makes his first kill from his hotel room, and almost all of our time spent with him is threw “point of view” shots, as if he is a monster cruising through the world looking for his next target, but after a while these POV shots start to get boring.
A movie about a crazy sniper should not be boring, and it was done well just a few years earlier with Dirty Harry, but in that film it was about the cat and mouse game between Harry Callahan and the Scorpio Killer, while in Two-Minute Warning there is no interaction between the villain and the heroes at all. It’s one thing to have a basically faceless killer but then you have to flesh out the characters that are going after him. Instead we get Charlton Heston as the generic police captain and John Cassavetes as the even shallower SWAT commander. Aside from growling at each other, and randomly spouting tactical gibberish, these two have little impact on the plot. Any moment spent with them feels like a padding of the screen time. Which leads us to one of the film’s biggest problems; the almost complete lack of anything happening in the film’s two hour running time. The film is called Two-Minute Warning for no actual reason aside from it being a football term and a catchy title for a thriller, and to give some kind of arbitrary deadline for the heroes.
Just prior to the second half of the game the sniper is spotted by a camera aboard the Goodyear blimp, but we then waste most of the movie with Heston and Cassavetes running around accomplishing nothing. Heston tells Cassavetes that he will have the green light to take out the sniper at the two-minute warning, but why? Cassavetes has his own SWAT snipers positioned in light towers who should be able to keep the sniper pinned down and unable to open fire on the crowd, so waiting for the second half of the game to finish is beyond moronic. They have no idea what this man’s motives are, certainly nothing that could lead them to believe he is waiting to the game to end before shooting. We do get some bullshit about getting all the VIPs out of the stadium first but that makes even less sense, because if they were the target their sudden departure would tip off the sniper that they know he is there. Then again everyone in this movie is oblivious. When the mad sniper takes out one of the SWAT snipers the body hangs from the lighting tower for ages, and yet not one person notices him.
Speaking of the SWAT team in this movie, they suck. The killer manages to take out both of the SWAT snipers, even though Cassavetes told Heston that his men can take out an eye at 300 yards, but all we see them to do is fail and die. The killer is seen constantly popping his head up over the concrete wall he’s hiding behind but for some reason these marksmen never take the shot. Is it because Heston won’t give the green light for the SWAT guys to take the man out? Partially, but that just makes Heston’s character look like an incompetent “man in charge” as in this situation, where the killer could open fire on hundreds of people at any time, those snipers would be told to take him out the second they get a clear shot.
When the killer finally starts gunning down our cast of innocent bystanders, the ones who fail to notice Walter Pigeon getting shot and his bloody corpse rolling down the aisle, we finally get to the disaster portion of the movie. The crowd panics and a stampede ensues. More death and destruction is caused by the stadium full of terrified fans trampling each other than what the killer does with his gun, and that element could have worked if director Larry Peerce didn’t get carried away with the mob scenes. We not only get people trampled by panicking football fans but we also get people tossed over railings multiple times, even though at that point they out of the stadium seating area and no longer in the sniper’s sights. This is a guy with a gun not a raging fire or tidal wave.
Two-Minute Warning fails on pretty much every level; as a disaster movie we don’t get any of the awesome special effects fueled carnage one would expect, as a cop thriller we only see our heroes completely suck at their jobs, and as a drama we get a collection of vignettes that never once has us giving a damn about any of them getting out of the stadium alive. And then to top it all off the menacing killer has less personality than the shark from Jaws. On an interesting note NBC was uncomfortable with the idea of a homicidal sniper acting alone and without apparent motivation, so for the television version they shot new footage that show that the shootings were just a cover for a nearby heist. I don’t know if this fleshing out of the killer and his motivations could have helped this movie, it certainly couldn’t have hurt it, but not enough for me to want to track down that version.
Note: At one point in the movie Heston is giving Cassavetes shit about wanting his men free reign to take out the sniper, “What is it with you? You just can’t wait to crank up those fancy M-16s. Dragging him down in a garbage bag may be your idea of a routine operation, god knows your people are good at it, but I’m the peace officer around here and it scares me.” A strange sentiment to hear coming from a guy who would become the NRA spokesman for years