D.O.A. (1988)
D.O.A. (1988)

Genre: Mystery and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 36 min.

Release Date: March 18th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton Actors: Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Charlotte Rampling, Daniel Stern, Jane Kaczmarek, Christopher Neame, Robin Johnson, Robert Knepper, Brion James, Elizabeth Arlen




hat starts as a noirish, black-and-white title sequence segues into a modern, stylized, rock music-infused introduction, creating an unfitting clash in design – and something far removed from the classic 1949 film noir picture on which this revamp is based. Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid) stumbles into a police station, near death, to recount the tale of what led him to his current, ragged condition. Thirty-six hours earlier, college English professor Cornell contends with snoozing students and smart-asses – and the pretty girl at the back of the class, freshman Sydney Fuller (Meg Ryan). “I’m over 18!”

Christmas break looms and the school’s holiday celebration is scheduled in a couple of days. Dexter has some friends (such as fellow educator Hal [Daniel Stern]) and enemies among his various colleagues, as well as a divorce in the final stages, which keep him distracted (plus, he’s in denial over why his wife [Jane Kaczmarek] is leaving him). Also rattling is the sudden suicide of ambitious student Nicholas Lang (Rob Knepper), who had been pestering his teacher to read his 400-page amateur novel, just before he took a dive from the top of the building. Later, at a faculty gathering at an art gallery, Lang’s adoptive mother Mrs. Fitzwaring (Charlotte Rampling) makes a speech, which causes a scene – a scene that Dex can’t quite understand, largely due to the copious champagne servings he’s been guzzling.

There’s a mystery afoot, but it’s convoluted and mixed up with numerous, generic, somewhat uninteresting characters. Before the plot really gets going, time must be made for light romance, a bit of drama, some pitiful clinginess, and relationship revelations. At least Dex is made out to be simply pathetic rather than morally bankrupt, as he somehow manages not to be seduced by markedly young coeds. As it turns out, however, someone has slipped poison into one of his many drinks – and it’s been in his system for long enough that his prognosis is a mere 24-48 hours to live.

That verdict is wildly unbelievable – a fantastical plot device fit for a story far removed from the normalcy of a college professor struggling with grading papers and coping with a dried-up marriage. Nevertheless, it’s that plain, unassuming career and relationships that give the movie a hint of spice; extreme averageness lends to a more striking out-of-control spiral. But it’s handled clumsily, particularly after the police get involved, transitioning into a fugitive scenario in which Dex must retrace his steps to get to the bottom of his would-be murderer – with Sydney in tow (literally attached at the wrist, not entirely unlike “The Defiant Ones”).

The premise is outrageous, but Cornell’s behavior is the most suspicious thing in the film. And, of course, Sydney’s lack of fear coupled with a strange enthusiasm for helping her kidnapper (adolescent crushes make people crazy?) fail to instill much authenticity in the murder/mystery happenings. Instead of sticking to sensible plights, the night grows odder, ranging from a nail gun shootout to familial confrontations at the end of a gun to a drunken joyride through a racetrack, all uncovered through nonexistent sleuthing. Dex just shows up in the right places at the right time to hear or see incriminating evidence. And the fast-paced rock beats in the background continue to goofily contradict the potentially deadly encounters.

“D.O.A.” becomes downright comical when the chaotic fights and flights collide with a convenient and unexplained tarpit right in the middle of the campus – and then a sex scene (because Quaid is apparently still a catch even after rolling around in a stable, getting beaten and bloodied and shot at, surviving a car accident, passing out a few times, and getting smashed with a trash can, pelted with popcorn, and doused with soda). By the predictable ending (it turns out there weren’t that many characters after all), there’s a bit of amusement from the unlikely pettiness of the who and the why at the heart of all the deaths and destruction. “Publish or perish.”

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10