‘Two-Minute Warning’ (1976): Disaster film fumbles its way to TV

Strange, cold, perverse thriller from the golden age of disaster movies.

By Paul Mavis

Shout! Factory and Universal have released on Blu-ray Two-Minute Warning, the 1976 actioner from Filmways (released by Universal Pictures), written by Edward Hume, directed by Larry Peerce, and starring Charlton Heston, John Cassavetes, Martin Balsam, Beau Bridges, Marilyn Hassett, David Janssen, Jack Klugman, Mitchell Ryan, Walter Pidgeon, Gena Rowlands, Brock Peters, David Groh, Jon Korkes, Anthony Davis, Pamela Bellwood, Andy Sidaris, Allan Miller, and Joe Kapp.

With its “anonymous sniper at the ersatz Super Bowl” storyline, Two-Minute Warning, when first released, was dismissed by many critics who hated its blank violence, and was largely avoided by an indifferent public. Ironically, far more people probably saw the now-notorious “re-imagined” Two-Minute Warning that first aired on NBC-TV in 1979—an unintentionally comical sliced-and-diced version of the movie that created, with the expensive addition of newly shot footage, an entirely new subplot about an art heist—a bowdlerized version that played exclusively in television syndication for decades.

Well…they’re both here on Shout!’s Blu-ray disc. That’s right, disaster film and Two-Minute Warning fanatics: the cobbled-together TV version has finally been released to home video (we’ll discuss that version further down in the review). What’s not here, quite oddly, is the director’s commentary track that’s advertised on the back of the disc case. A new interview with Larry Peerce is included, however, along with some radio spots, a still gallery, and an original theatrical trailer.

It’s Super Bowl “Championship X” Sunday at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with the Baltimore Whatchamacallits visiting the defending Los Angeles Thingamajigs, and anybody who’s nobody in Hollywood anymore is attending. Aging Los Angeles quarterback Charlie Tyler (Joe Kapp, The Longest Yard, Breakheart Pass), with bad knees and an insanely hot redhead waiting for him back at his hotel room—and I quote: “I’m lonely, Charlie…I need some lovin’,”), will certainly be there, as will his old Boston college buddy, the Priest with No Name (Mitchell Ryan, Magnum Force, Electra Glide in Blue). Kvetching Coliseum manager Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam, Psycho, The Delta Force) has to juggle the many V.I.P.s in attendance, including two governors, seven senators, an Arab prince, and even President Gerald Ford, en route from the airport. Cosmically grumpy Baltimore car salesman Steve (David Janssen, The Green Berets, Macho Callahan) has flown in to squint uncontrollably while further verbally abusing his gorgeous live-in girlfriend, Janet (Gena Rowlands, Machine Gun McCain, Tony Rome), who can’t seem to help herself being friendly with anything in pants.

Unemployed loser Mike Ramsay (Beau Bridges, Village of the Giants) has brought his sweet, accommodating “door mat” wife, Peggy (Pamela Bellwood, Hangar 18, Airport ‘77), to watch him swig wine and slap around his whiny kids. The notorious criminal, “the Pickpocket,” (Walter Pidgeon, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Skyjacked) is creeping around, with his decidedly shaky hand lifting wallets out of all those Haggar stretch-fit slacks. Pretty single Lucy (Marilyn Hassett, Shadow of the Hawk) finds herself in-between her “date,” possessive jerk Jeffrey (Jon Korkes, Jaws of Satan), her roommate’s boyfriend, and charming, easy-going Doctor Al (David Groh, TV’s Smash-Up on Interstate 5), because they couldn’t afford Jimmy Caan. Degenerate f*cking gambler Stu Sandman (Jack Klugman, Cry Terror!) owes 28 large to cool, collected shark Mr. Green (Allan Miller, Cruising), so Los Angeles better win, or the Sandman’s gonna take a permanent nap.

Watching the game on the South West station’s tube is LAPD Captain Peter Holly (Charlton Heston, The Omega Man, Soylent Green), who’s worried he doesn’t have enough coverage for traffic control around the Coliseum, while tough-as-nails S.W.A.T. Sergeant Chris Button (John Cassavetes, Devil’s Angels, The Dirty Dozen) relaxes at home with his family, waiting for his next call to zap some psycho. That call comes pretty quick, when an out-of-town anonymous sniper (Warren Miller)—who warmed up today by blowing away a cyclist from his Holiday Inn window—is spotted by the Goodyear Blimp, no less, crouching in the Coliseum’s peristyle flag tower, armed with a modified, scoped Remington 742 carbine with an extended 30-round clip. Among the 91,000 souls in the stands, who will live and who will die is the new game for the day, as Holly and Button (really?) spar over how and when to take down the sniper.

Two-Minute Warning was Universal’s rushed answer to capitalize not only on the then-cresting popularity of disaster movies, but also to take advantage of Charlton Heston’s still potent box office association with the action genre. Heston, a big, big A-list star in the 1950s and 1960s (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur), had, like any other headliner, titles in his overall canon that didn’t click with ticket buyers. Still, he was reliably consistent in churning out profit-makers for the studios, even as younger actors began getting the more prestigious assignments as the 1960s closed out. After his starring role in 1968’s Planet of the Apes, however, Heston was on a surprise mid-career resurgence thanks to the sci-fi/fantasy and action genres, with Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Skyjacked, Soylent Green, and The Three Musketeers racking up big worldwide grosses.

Heston’s renaissance culminated in 1974’s one-two punch of Earthquake (featuring Sensurround’s debut) and Airport ‘75, both of which landed in the year’s Top Ten grossing hits at the U.S. box office. When Heston followed up with Universal’s second Sensurround “event,” the 1976 WWII epic Midway, the studio knew they had a monster hit on their hands even before its release (it turned out to be yet another Heston Top Ten hit at year’s end). So Heston was pressed hard by the studio to sign onto Two-Minute Warning, a project that Universal felt could potentially be an enormous hit, mixing the then-red hot disaster genre with the national pastime: football.

In his published journals, Heston expressed doubts about Two-Minute Warning right from the start, worrying that his part was too small. When he raised this concern, he was told by the suits at Universal that his presence was considered “insurance,” and for his relatively brief participation, he would be given $250,000—over a million today—and 10% of the gross rentals (the money returned to the studios from the exhibitors). The notion of a quick, extremely lucrative payday (with a potentially huge backend deal should the movie break out), along with his belief in director Larry Peerce’s ability with the material, convinced Heston to sign on to the movie.

By most accounts, including the director’s, Two-Minute Warning was a tense, logistically difficult shoot, one that was additionally hampered by Universal pushing for a quick turnaround, in order to beat out a rival “Super Bowl disaster” movie then also shooting: Paramount’s terrorist thriller from John Frankenheimer, Black Sunday. Universal was convinced the combination of the disaster genre and then-hot Heston’s support would shoot Two-Minute Warning into the $20 million dollar grossing range (around $100 million today). Unfortunately, Universal choked on the five yard line and dropped the ball: the studio ditched a more lucrative summer release date for a fall opening, a strategic mistake compounded by letting Two-Minute Warning go out into theaters with an “R” rating (say goodbye to the disaster genre’s core audience: families and kids). Both of these fumbles—along with the fact that the disaster genre had by then peaked with tired audiences thanks to inferior models saturating the market—factored into Two-Minute Warning underperforming at the box office against a then-hefty combined production and promotional budget of around $10 million.

Heston, in his journals, admitted to all of those elements negatively influencing Two-Minute Warning’s b.o. haul, along with the movie’s two biggest challenges: Heston’s character doesn’t really do anything in the story, and generally unsympathetic characters—two criticisms that have merit if you view Two-Minute Warning as a conventional disaster thriller (I don’t…). As an unabashed fan of Heston’s macho, larger-than-life, take-charge 1970s screen persona, it is disconcerting to me not seeing him occupy a more central role in the movie. Playing a modern-day cop in the worst-cut suit I’ve ever seen (the sniper’s first victim should have been Heston’s tailor), Heston doesn’t show up until the movie’s already going…and then he’s seen worrying about traffic control at the stadium (thrilling…he’s a traffic cop). For the rest of Two-Minute Warning, until he’s dragged into the final physical confrontation with the sniper, he’s shown either yelling into a walkie talkie at someone, or trading sneering jabs with S.W.A.T. leader Cassavetes. Hardly interesting stuff for the outsized actor…let alone thrilling.

It’s a further measure of Two-Minute Warning’s unsteadiness to see these diametrically-different actors doing their oddly-timed scenes together: Heston the Hollywood pro looks pissed at his seemingly comatose co-star, while talented-but-clearly-slumming Cassavetes, picking up a check to make one of his own home movies, reeks of contempt for the genre material. Worse, their arbitrary rivalry puts Heston in a weirdly subordinate position: he’s calling the shots…and his call is to do nothing for an hour and a half. This is a Heston disaster movie, with Heston in action? Heston’s cop actually equates S.W.A.T. with Nazi storm troopers (I’m shocked Heston went ahead with that line), saying he’s a peace officer who’s worried for the safety of the V.I.P.s—the “probable targets”—should the equally gun-happy S.W.A.T. guys and sniper go nuts. So…Heston isn’t too particularly concerned with the other 91,000 people in the stadium? Hardly a hero figure we the audience can embrace. Cassavetes calls “Bull-sh*t” on that, saying the whole stadium is a kill zone (Cassavetes’ cosmically bored line reading there is the funniest moment in the whole movie), before Heston basically does an illogical 180, throws up his hands and agrees to S.W.A.T. zapping the sniper at the two-minute warning. Even though Heston gets to deliver the coup de grace to the sniper, it’s way too little too late for the action star.

As for audience identification or sympathy for the lead characters and the guest star shooting/rioting victims, quite a few are a perversely unappealing lot. In most disaster movies from that time period, you might have one character that’s an out-and-out “villain”—Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno immediately comes to mind, or the ship company representative in The Poseidon Adventure, or that sweaty little coward in Airport who makes Van Helfin pull the pin—while everyone else was basically sympathetic, with their all-too-human foibles making them relatable to the audience. In Two-Minute Warning, however, there are several characters we actively hope get drilled by the end of the movie.

Aside from Heston’s blithe indifference to the rabble in the stands, and Cassavettes’ zombie-like disregard for anyone getting in the way of his mission (if an essentially innocent rule-breaker needs to get pummeled by S.W.A.T. in the john, for possible information on the sniper…so be it), we have to endure the various whinings, grumblings, and snarlings from David Janssen, Beau Bridges, and Jack Klugman. Janssen, an actor perpetually scowling at something off-camera (how is it possible he’s only 44 years old here? He looks 65 if he looks a day), plays a thoroughly obnoxious car salesman who’s either bitching that girlfriend Gena Rowlands isn’t paying any attention to him, or pushing her away with one nasty commitment jibe after another. We don’t buy at all his last-minute conversion to proposed marriage (we know the engagement would be over after the first argument on the plane back to Baltimore). Beau Bridges’ unemployed father is a creepy jerk who, in front of his wife, watches other women with his binoculars, swills wine while begrudging his hot, sweaty children some mints, before he whacks one of his kids in the face for spilling the beans on his unemployment (in another of the movie’s perversities, we don’t even get the pleasure of seeing him shot; his understanding, endlessly cajoling wife Pamela Bellwood takes the bullet for him).

Klugman’s gambler, though, is one of the most repulsive characters you’ll find in 1970s disaster movies. Fans of lovable, huggable Oscar Madison are in for a big shock when they see Klugman, sans toupee, grotesquely grabbing his prostitute’s breast in a display of queasy erotic intensity, before crying and screaming, in a thoroughly humiliating fashion, as he’s hung upside down outside a high rise hotel balcony (his gutless, mewling, “Whyda have ta do that for?” plea as loan shark Allan Miller grabs his face, is truly nauseating). The rest of his part consists of sitting next to patient, understanding priest Mitchell Ryan, yelling obscenities at the players and other fans as he squirms and sweats over the score tally. We feel nothing when he’s shot (except perhaps relief); the only emotion generated is appreciation for Ryan’s kindness while cradling the corpse (Mitchell Ryan, a thoroughly underrated pro, gets more out his nothing role here than we have any right to expect).

All that sounds negative, right…but I rather like Two-Minute Warning’s unreasonable contrariness to its disaster genre conventions. It’s a thoroughly strange, mixed-up movie, quite cold and cynical and nihilistic—either by design or by unintentional screwing up. For example: our sterling hero. I wish there had been more scenes like the one where a preoccupied Heston shuts down an already-disinterested discussion among some cops about the shooting of the bicyclist earlier in the day…so he can catch a crucial game play on TV. He finally states he’s just glad it didn’t happen in his division. Roger Ebert cried and whined about Two-Minute Warning’s groundless, baseless violence (we can assume he sat all the way through this particular movie…), but his carping about the movie’s senseless shootings at cardboard target characters just illustrates what was hypocritical about most critics’ reactions to the disaster genre back in the 1970s (Siskel was so much better…).

A genre that was either barely tolerated by the press or openly scorned, their most frequent complaint with these disaster movies were the long, bloated set-ups of the characters—showing how much they had to live for—before they were picked off one by one according to their billing in the credits. Two-Minute Warning perverts that process, and strips away the phony qualifiers. Most of the movie’s suspense is in showing the faceless sniper getting ready to shoot into the crowd; we get no attempt to make Heston or Cassavetes larger-than-life heroes (nor do we particularly like them when we do get a bit of character background).

The movie opens with a startling P.O.V. execution of a bicyclist, for absolutely no reason, before we spend almost two hours wondering when the sniper is going to attack again (the decision not to show his face on-screen is brilliant; we can’t feel anything for him—not hate, not empathy, nothing. Just fear). More screen time is devoted to discussing him, or showing people incoherently arguing over his motives and future actions, or showing S.W.A.T. maneuvering into position to kill him, than on the future victims’ personal problems. And when we do finally get to know them, we’re given shooting victims who are, for the most part, thoroughly deplorable (except for nice wife Bellwood—she gets to live). Best of all, once we think the carnage is over, once we think we’re “safe,” a full-blown panic ensues, with people getting crushed and stomped on and thrown off parapets as they try and escape the bullets that aren’t even flying any more (Peerce’s staging of these powerful, frightening riot scenes are nothing short of remarkable—too bad Universal didn’t spring for Sensurround here!).

In Airport, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and The Poseidon Adventure, the catalysts for the ensuing destruction are obvious: a mad bomber who’s mentally ill and a professional failure who wants to will his wife the flight insurance; a high-rise fire caused by greedy contractors; an earthquake; and a capsized boat, led into a storm by a greedy corporate a-hole. And their heroes are easily recognized, as well: an intrepid pilot and a resourceful airport manager; a brave architect and fire chief; a brave civil engineer; and a resourceful, brave priest. In Two-Minute Warning, we have no heroes (Heston and Cassavetes just shoot the guy after he’s killed people; we feel no relief that they’re around, “protecting” the other characters. Because they didn’t), and we never get resolution as to why the sniper waits and waits and waits, before finally firing into the crowd. No answers, no catharsis, no understanding. Zero. As Cassavetes disgustedly says at the end, we’ll learn a lot about the sniper in the news for the next few weeks, but nothing that will explain him or his actions because there is no explanation for what goes into making a killer like this. It’s a bracingly callous viewpoint for this kind of big “entertainment.”

In those other famous disaster movies, there’s conflict and death, but then a will to live rises up among the survivors, illustrating a reaffirmation of the human spirit (The Poseidon Adventure being the most apt example). There’s none of that phony bullsh*t in Two-Minute Warning. You go to a game to enjoy yourself, and you fight and crab your way through it with your loved one or friend, and then you’re shot at and, if you survive, you still might get stomped in the ensuing panic. And nobody will ever be able to tell you why, exactly, it all happened. That blank, cynical reality makes Two-Minute Warning more honest than just about any other entry in the 1970s disaster genre.

The 2k 1080p HD widescreen 2.35:1 Blu-ray transfer for Two-Minute Warning looks far better than you’ve ever seen the movie, I would suspect (I originally saw it at the drive-in and could barely make it out). Fine image detail has been noticeably improved, while colors—a tad muted, perhaps by original design—look true. Contrast is nicely balanced, and grain, while noticeable at times, is tight enough. No compression issues to speak of. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono English track has a hefty re-recording level, with no hiss or distortion (those gunshots boom). English subtitles are available.

Now, the extras. First off: boo to Shout! Factory for advertising a director’s commentary track on the back of the box but not including one on the disc (unless it’s some kind of freaking Easter egg, it’s nowhere to be found here). However…yea to Shout! Factory for including the one extra every 1970s disaster genre fan wanted: the fullscreen, 141:36 TV version of Two-Minute Warning. Back in 1978, when Big Three primetime debuts of big-screen motion pictures routinely garnered huge ratings of tens of millions of viewers, NBC declined to show Two-Minute Warning because of the now-quaint notion that its disturbing content of a lone gunman assassinating innocent bystanders at a football game was inappropriate for network audiences (can you imagine that today?).

Universal, hoping to recoup costs on its expensive flop, offered an unusual solution: they would spend $500,000 to shoot an entirely new subplot for Two-Minute Warning, while taking out the more violent aspects of the sniper plot from the original footage. To his credit, original director Larry Peerce declined to shoot the new scenes, and then demanded that his name be taken off the TV version (editor Gene Palmer received helmer credit on the new TV version, while Francesca Turner gets the new screenwriting credit). Sources vary as to how much new footage was shot, and how much old footage was excised out (30 minutes cut, and almost 40 minutes added seems close).

Charlton Heston did a day’s pick-up of three short scenes (looking noticeably older after almost three years, with a different colored wig, no less), while newcomers Rossano Brazzi, James Olson, Paul Shenar, William Prince, Joanna Pettet, and Warren Miller (reprising his role as the sniper, with his face shown this time) became the focus of a new (and totally incoherent) subplot: Miller, a mercenary buddy of Olson’s, is to create a diversion at the Coliseum while art thieves Brazzi, Olson, and Shenar rob the nearby Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History of William Prince’s priceless collection of paintings. The hitch? Pettet, the gang’s “inside man,” is given Prince’s collection as a love gesture right before the heist. So now, instead of shooting people, Miller shoots out stadium lights to cause a panic, while the gang rips paintings out of their frames…as Pettet calls the cops.

The new and “improved” Two-Minute Warning debuted on NBC’s Big Event on February 6th, 1979, and garnered a hefty rating. Ironically, after all that effort and money from Universal and NBC…it was still beat out in the ratings by ABC’s sitcom/action lineup of Three’s Company, Taxi, and Starsky and Hutch. From that point on, Universal made the altered TV version of Two-Minute Warning the only version available to broadcast and cable TV, with the original theatrical version all but disappearing (it eventually showed up on DVD…but weirdly, not the TV version).

Considering the original theatrical version was a failure, I would suspect more people know Two-Minute Warning from its bastardized TV version, and that’s a shame, because it’s an astoundingly inept mishmash which makes no dramatic sense whatsoever. The highlight is a previously clueless Heston now suddenly getting a message from space, apparently, telling him something is wrong at the art museum: “I got a hunch there’s a heist going on!” (it’s embarrassing to see Heston, whose Top Ten b.o. days were finally gone by this point, shilling for this crap—do you see Cassavetes coming back for this garbage?). The gang spends a lot of time in that van talking, before they start stealing, only to go back in the van and get tipped over for hitting a little girl…with a TV crew covering the whole thing (how does everyone already know they’re art thieves?). It’s a laughable, sad exercise that replaces the genuinely “original” original (in their zeal to eliminate the nastier aspects of Two-Minute Warning’s violence, they’ve made it where no one even dies now…while poor Walter Pidgeon disappears entirely).

Other extras include a new interview with director Larry Peerce (25:32), where he discusses his career, and the Two-Minute Warning shoot. Funny details come up about the actors (classy Pidgeon told dirty jokes; Balsam and Rowlands you didn’t fool around with; Klugman was an ass about taking a squib shot; Cassavetes admitted he was going to do “nothing” with the role…which Peerce somehow takes as a positive). Most surprising, Peerce positively lauds Heston’s professionalism and gentlemanly demeanor (it’s always amusing—for the wrong reasons—to hear liberals like Peerce who worked with him appear so shocked, shocked that Heston, Hollywood’s most preeminent conservative, didn’t have horns and a tail, and that he was in fact a polite, hard-working actor and an all-around great guy). The funniest moment in the interview? Peerce’s off-handed one line about Marilyn Hassett’s work here…while completely failing to mention she was his wife at the time! A couple of radio spots, a stills gallery, and an original trailer round out the extras.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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