There are two kinds of low-budget movies – those that manage to create fully-realized worlds on their own threadbare terms, like “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Slacker”, and those that leave you shaking your head and thinking, “If only they’d had some real money to work with.” “23 Hours” falls into the latter camp. The talent on display is often impressive, but the shoestring resources are all too apparent.
The story is a twisty and intriguing meld of “The Matrix,” “Being John Malkovich” and any number of 40’s noir thrillers like “The Big Sleep.” In futuristic Fifth City, where a company called Sardonyx controls 63% of the real estate, corporate drone Nick Miles is trying to quit smoking. His shrink has him down to one cigarette every three hours, but when Nick awakens for his 3 a.m. smoke, something strange happens: he loses an hour in the wink of an eye. Several nights in row, the hour between three and four in the morning goes missing, until finally Nick comes to consciousness at 4 a.m. with a gun in his hand and the dead body of his psychiatrist on the floor.
Up until this point, the pace of “23 Hours” can best be described as narcoleptic. Dialogue is recited in dreary monotone, shots are repeated and held far too long, and it all feels distressingly amateurish. But after 35 minutes, the movie gets a sudden infusion of energy that only picks up speed as it goes along. The self-conscious attempts at moodiness go out the window, to be replaced by genuinely impressive stuntwork as Nick is pursued by the usual assortment of black trenchcoat-wearing goons. The movie’s most astonishing moments come courtesy of someone called “Mica”, who plays the Batman Pez-dispenser toting villain known as The Judge. Flipping through the air, bounding from rooftops, slicing and dicing with wit and style, he’s a real find.
Writer/director Eric Thornett must also be credited for coming up with a clever finale that actually provides a convincing explanation for the weirdness that has come before. And his “Alphaville”-like efforts at simulating sci-fi settings with real life locations occasionally pay off as well. (A desolate concrete park where Nick eats lunch one day is particularly eerie.) But time and again he is hampered by his limited budget. The image quality varies from adequate to downright unwatchable. A few digital effects are employed, with limited success. A climactic battle supposedly taking place on a high castle ledge throws us completely out of the picture – we never get the right perspective to make it remotely believable.
As a convincing creation in its own right, “23 Hours” is too cheap by far. As a calling card for Thornett’s talent, however, it’s priceless.