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Film review: Panic

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Following in the wake of "The Sopranos" and "Analyze This," we've seen a glut of inferior, like-minded projects with storylines about career criminals undergoing psychotherapy. (Perhaps the lowest point in this brief trend was the insufferably unfunny "Gun Shy," an embarrassment for its unfortunate stars, Liam Neeson and Sandra Bullock.)

So when Henry Bromell, the maker of "Panic," first made his pitch to producers, it probably didn't go over all that well. And the idea behind this dramatic thriller really doesn't sound that different from the others.

But first impressions can be deceiving, and this low-budget movie is much smarter and more perceptive than you might have thought.

At least some of that may be attributable to the cast, which is full of solid-name actors, including the always dependable William H. Macy, who stars as Alex, a softspoken, fortysomething killer who's having a bit of an existential crisis.

Alex would like to get out of the "family business" — hitman-for-hire, operated by his father (Donald Sutherland) — but he doesn't have the courage to do so. Instead, he relies on his sessions with psychotherapist Josh Parks (John Ritter) to help get him through the week.

If that isn't bad enough, his feelings of anxiety and hatred toward his chosen "career" are souring his most treasured relationships, with his wife (Tracey Ullman) and young son (David Dorfman). He is also toying with the idea of an affair with Sarah (Neve Campbell), a sexually confused twentysomething he meets in the therapist's office. But the mild-mannered killer can't bring himself to act on those desires.

When Alex does finally find the courage to break out of his self-imposed rut, he has a new problem — the new target his father gives him is Alex's analyst.

Despite the presence of Macy and Ritter, both known for their comic work, this film isn't really a comedy; it's more of a brooding think piece. However, the script does have some dark humorous moments — which is a good thing because otherwise it might seem a bit too dire.

As a director, Bromell's pacing and dialogue are sometimes awkward, and he doesn't always get the best of performances out of his cast (Barbara Bain is pretty bad as Alex's mother; Ullman's work isn't up to her usual standard).

But Macy is as excellent as ever, while Campbell is surprisingly good, despite her limited screentime. But the standout is Sutherland, who is quietly menacing as Alex's father.

Kudos also to cinematography Jeff Jur and to composer Brian Tyler, for his subtly creepy score.

"Panic" is rated R for occasional strong profanity, violence (shootings), a brief, fairly discreet sex scene, crude sex talk and use of vulgar sexual slang terms. Running time: 88 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com