Friday March 9, 2001
Like many ambitious, provocative films, "15 Minutes" is a bit of a mess. Both audacious and unwieldy, exciting and excessive, this dark thriller is too long, too violent and not always convincing. But at the same time, there's no denying that it's onto something, that its savage indictment of the nexus involving media, crime and a voracious public is a cinematic statement difficult to ignore.
For despite its traditional cops-and-killers format, "15 Minutes" (its title taken from Andy Warhol's prediction of how long everyone in the future can expect to be famous) is a polemical, apocalyptic film. Writer-director John Herzfeld is furious at the "if it bleeds, it leads" nature of our TV news culture, at the intertwined lusts for fame and gore that rule a society where publicity is more important than reality, everyone plays the victim, and everything is for sale.
Though its anger is a force to be reckoned with, "15 Minutes" finds some space to be funny, albeit in a bleak way, and even provides unexpected moments of romance. Herzfeld, whose debut film was the equally impudent if less impressive "2 Days in the Valley," has utilized an appropriately off-center sensibility for his story, taking the strands of crime melodrama and twisting them to fit his particular purposes.
A key factor in keeping "15 Minutes" involving is its look. Working with inventive French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier ("Les Amants du Pont-Neuf," "The Cradle Will Rock," "Nurse Betty") and editor Steven Cohen, Herzfeld is determined to keep things kinetic and visually interesting. He even makes vivid use of footage shot on a video camera by one of the actors while in character.
In general outline a policier about two of the good guys chasing a pair of villains, "15 Minutes" utilizes marquee names Robert De Niro and Edward Burns for its investigators, but generates more interest with the two lesser-known actors who get to create all the havoc.
Emil Slovak (Karel Roden) and Oleg Razgul (Oleg Taktarov) are exceptionally good as the Eastern European version of those criminal odd couples movies delight in spawning. While Emil is shrewd and ruthless, Oleg is childlike, dreamy and obsessed with being a filmmaker. "I am here for movies," he tells a baffled New York immigration official, adding by way of explanation, "I saw 'It's a Wonderful Life.' "
Actually, Emil and Oleg are here to get the money owed them from an earlier criminal action. This, not surprisingly, proves to be difficult, and soon Emil is creating mayhem, and Oleg, a fan of "Silence of the Sheeps" who registers at hotels as famed director Frank Capra, is recording it. "A tragedy," he says with conviction after one particularly bleak event. "Every great film must have one."
This kind of activity brings Emil and Oleg to the attention of a pair of very different law enforcement types. Eddie Flemming (De Niro), the city's most famous cop, is a media-wise celebrity homicide detective with an attractive girlfriend (Melina Kanakaredes). He's a cop who's always good copy. Eddie's professionally close to Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), the host of "Top Story," a tabloid TV show that's built its high ratings on broadcasting violence.
Jordy Warsaw (Burns) sees things differently. An idealistic arson investigator, he is initially put off by Flemming's reputation and methods, but soon learns that image and publicity play a greater part in the criminal justice system than he allowed himself to imagine.
In whatever time he can spare from shedding blood, Emil gets fascinated with the kinds of TV talk shows in which everyone, no matter how morally corrupt, claims, "I'm a victim here too." Delighted by our whiny, crybaby public culture ("I love America, no one is responsible for what they do"), the increasingly media-savvy Emil comes up with a devious scheme to exploit this tendency that causes the film to take on a considerably darker cast.
In addition to Roden, Taktarov and Grammer, "15 Minutes" (ably cast by Mindy Marin) is especially good at finding excellent, underappreciated actors (like Vera Farmiga, splendid as a witness to a crime) and making good use of familiar faces (that's Charlize Theron, a "2 Days in the Valley" veteran, under a black wig as an escort service madam).
But finally it's not the acting, not the erratic plotting and certainly not the notable violence that gives "15 Minutes" its impact, but its unfiltered fury. Flaws and all, this is a passionate attack on a cynical, hypocritical media that rarely admits to error, as well as on a society at risk of collapsing from within from selfishness and self-righteousness. We'd like to say that what we're seeing could never, ever happen, but if we're honest, we simply can't.
15 Minutes, 2001. R for strong violence, language and some sexuality. An Industry Entertainment, New Redemption/Tribeca production, released by New Line Cinema. Director John Herzfeld. Producers Nick Wechsler, Keith Addis, David Blocker, John Herzfeld. Executive producer Claire Rudnick Polstein. Screenplay John Herzfeld. Cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier. Editor Steven Cohen. Costumes April Ferry. Music Anthony Marinelli, J. Peter Robinson. Production design Mayne Berke. Art director Jess Gonchor. Set decorator Casey Hallenbeck. Running time: 2 hours. Robert De Niro as Eddie Flemming. Edward Burns as Jordy Warsaw. Kelsey Grammer as Robert Hawkins. Avery Brooks as Leon Jackson. Melina Kanakaredes as Nicolette Karas. Karel Roden as Emil Slovak. Oleg Taktarov as Oleg Razgul. Vera Farmiga as Daphne Handlova.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun