The Daily Stream: '90s Thriller Nick Of Time Reminds Us Of A Simpler Time At The Movies

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Nick of Time" (1995)

Where You Can Stream It: Amazon Prime

The Pitch: You have peak Christopher Walken, pre-problematic Johnny Depp when he was young, hungry and before he got locked into playing every character as broad as a house, John Badham ("WarGames") directing a Patrick Sheane Duncan ("Mr. Holland's Opus") script in a tense, political assassination thriller hung on a gimmick that actually works. The gimmick in question: the movie plays out in real-time. So the main character has a ticking clock and we, the audience, are along for the ride.

Why It's Essential Viewing

This mid-'90s thriller feels refreshing by today's studio output standards. "Nick of Time" is a down and dirty, character-driven adult-oriented thriller. Because of a ton of factors, the recent pandemic being a big one, we don't seem to get a lot of smaller stakes, tense movies like this in theaters anymore, which is a shame.

If made today, "Nick of Time" would for sure be a streaming exclusive. There's a broader conversation to be had about the current state of theatrical distribution and who's to blame for the lack of a more varied experience at the local AMC (is it the studios for not making the movies or the audiences for not showing up to the few that do squeak through), but any conclusions anybody would come to is probably moot anyway because we're in uncharted waters at the moment as streaming services are starting to crash for the first time and post-Covid attendance in theaters is rising.

What we can all agree on is that if a movie like "Nick of Time" was made today you're almost guaranteed to see it as an Amazon Prime original or Netflix exclusive, which only makes looking back at this 1995 film even more interesting.

Let's break down the plot to this one

Set in and around LA, the movie follows a meek accountant (played by Johnny Depp) who is recruited by a mustachioed Christopher Walken to assassinate California's governor. Naturally, he's not very inclined to take Mr. Walken up on this proposal, but to sweeten the pot Walken kidnaps Depp's young daughter, which is pretty uncool, but undeniably effective because Depp does what he says.

Depp's character is on a ticking clock, with only a certain amount of time to either become an unwitting assassin or figure out a way to save his daughter. The gimmick of the movie is that ticking clock is happening in real-time. Ish. Meaning the time passing in the movie is the same amount of time as the movie's length, which is a hell of a conceit for a thriller, something that really puts you in the moment in a way that traditional narratives can't.

As the walls are closing in on Depp's character and he gets more and more stressed and desperate for a way out of this mess the audience can't help but feel that crunch as well, especially when that cinematic vice is being tightened by a madman like Christopher Walken, who is gleefully cruel in this movie.

A fine example of pre-Pirates Johnny Depp

So, you have a really fun setup for a movie like this, and when you throw in a seasoned director like Badham and a truckload of some of the best character actors of the time you get a sort of forgotten '90s gem.

It's worth noting that anything involving Johnny Depp is something of a loaded topic these days, but back then he was considered one of the most exciting young actors working. He cut his teeth on TV of the 1980s and was front and center for the indie boom, choosing to work with exciting directors like John Waters ("Cry-Baby"), Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands"), Lasse Halstrom ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") and Jim Jarmusch ("Dead Man") to name a few.

It's hard to remember pre-Jack Sparrow Johnny Depp, but he was the total package. He had movie star charisma, good looks, and the impulse to use any Hollywood cache he had to support interesting, visionary projects from filmmakers who otherwise would never have gotten their budgets without a star like Depp attached.

Young and hungry

"Nick of Time" is his straight studio thriller movie that he did on the heels of "Dead Man" and "Ed Wood," but by today's standards, it's a borderline art movie.

At this point in his career, Depp was hungry and invested, which gives his character in this movie a bit of flair that any other actor might not bring. It's crucial that the character of Gene Watson is a limp noodle at the beginning. It's why the bad guys choose him. He seems to be easily intimidated and controllable and it's a genuine shock when he begins outsmarting the bad guys.

You need a star in that perfect young and hungry spot that Depp was in to make this movie work and rewatching it today it's a nice reminder of the kinds of performances Depp gave before he was eaten up by his own caricatures.

So, if you're searching for an interesting, off-the-beaten-path watch and haven't seen this one it might be time to give "Nick of Time" a spin and see what you think.