After roiling a Polish village as an impostor priest in Oscar-nominated “Corpus Christi,” star Bartosz Bielenia tries to rattle the entire nation in “Prime Time.” His character here is another malcontent, this one armed and ready to take over a TV studio on New Year’s Eve with a special message for the world. But he’s a bit too literally a rebel without a cause: We never discover just what this protagonist’s protesting gripe is. That lack makes director Jakub Piatek and co-writer Lukasz Czapski’s first feature a familiar hostage drama whose anticipated narrative raison d’etre is strangely MIA. The slick, watchable but ultimately somewhat pointless results, which premiered at Sundance six months ago, launch worldwide on Netflix June 30.
It’s New Year’s Eve 1999 at a Krakow network affiliate, and despite the Y2K fears glimpsed on other stations’ broadcasts, just another night’s labor for the staff here. That includes longtime resident “personality” Mira (Magdalena Poplawska), who shows up just moments before she’s scheduled on-air — late enough that an emergency replacement has already been found, though she’s unapologetic as she elbows that younger woman aside. But just when Mira is announcing what lucky viewer will win a car in “the last call-in contest of this millennium,” the show gets rudely interrupted as Sebastian (Bielenia) invades the set, already holding security guard Grzegorz (Andrzej Klak) at gunpoint.
In the ensuing panic, most of the crew flee, and active broadcasting is cut off. Left to deal with the situation are the two nervous hostages, as well as level-headed veteran producer Laura (Malgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik). She’s soon joined in the control booth above by variably helpful police negotiators (Monika Frajczyk, Cezary Kosinski) who attempt to talk down or at least distract the volatile Sebastian while their superior (Dobromir Dymecki) mulls how to have his SWAT-type team storm the now-barred soundstage.
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Most of their tactics only make things worse, particularly when they produce the perp’s father (Juliusz Chrzastrowski), a hothead who, far from providing balm, instead quickly illustrates why his son wants nothing to do with him. But that brief dysfunctional-family insight aside, we learn very little about what has driven university dropout Sebastian to this drastic act. There are hints that he may be a victim of homophobia (dad blurts ambiguous criticism of his “sick lifestyle”), and fleeting bits of other stations’ broadcasts suggest possible larger political or social issues that might factor. Are his frustrations those of so many other Polish youth, who figure their only chances of real success lie in emigrating abroad?
We can only guess, and frankly there isn’t much interest or suspense in seeing this kind of “Dog Day Afternoon”-like standoff play out when there’s no clear motivation behind it. Increasingly exasperated as excuses keep being made to keep him off-air, Sebastian doesn’t get to read the speech he’s carrying notes for, nor do we ever get an inkling what it might contain.
In “Corpus Christi,” Bielenia was electric, but then he had Mateusz Pacewicz’s great script to work with. Here, he retains some charisma in a hard-working performance, but it’s not enough to singlehandedly provide this screenplay with meaning. We’re hard-pressed to care about Sebastian’s fate when we have no idea what he’s taking a possibly-suicidal stand for. By default, the most sympathetic figure here becomes Klak’s working-class nice guy. The film might better have provided more screentime to his underdeveloped character, and less to Poplawska’s crisply acted but one-dimensional prima donna.
Shot on an actual disused old TV soundstage, “Prime Time” was apparently set 20 years ago simply because broadcast television commanded a much larger viewership then. The millennium’s-end timing turns out to be superfluous, one more thing that ultimately signifies nothing here. Piatek’s film is fast-paced and visually polished, yet it’s hard not to feel it’s all been much ado about very little in the end.
When Peter Finch’s Howard Beale ranted about his own boob-tube platform in “Network,” there was a tragic grandeur to it. Even when Chris Klein’s young idiot held TV cameras hostage in the underrated “American Dreamz,” the very pointlessness of his act made a sharp satirical point. At the close of “Prime Time,” the only thing one can say with certainty is that a young man angry about something or other has inconvenienced several people on a holiday evening. That’s not exactly fodder for a gripping, let alone memorable, 90 minutes, despite Piatek’s efforts to lend that span the urgency of a white-knuckle thriller.
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