Monday, February 13, 2012

The Minutes Tick Away With Intensity In 15 Minutes!

The Good: Acting, Pacing
The Bad: Characters are written as "types," Promotes interethnic prejudice, Cheap romantic subplot
The Basics: In a movie that attempts to reveal the relationship between the media and violent crime, all that is shown are weak characters and police incompetence.

It takes a daring film to hire a well known actor and put their character in mortal jeopardy in a way that the viewer actually believes that they may not survive the film. For example, if one cast Pierce Brosnan as an action hero, the viewers will always doubt the character's jeopardy because the prevailing wisdom is "Why would you shell out the big bucks for the actor only to kill off his character?" 15 Minutes counts on the shock value of such things as that prejudice when it cast Robert De Niro and put his character in the hands of a psychopath.

Aging New York Detective Eddie Flemming is working the streets of New York City with his badge, gun and no small amount of celebrity. His affiliation with the camera crews of Robert Hawkins' gritty news-entertainment show brings him as much grief as it does help. While investigating an arson murder, Flemming finds himself in the company of Jordy Warsaw, a fire marshal who is more than a little green. As the two begin to work together hunting down an Eastern European psychopath and his friend who is documenting the killing spree on his stolen home video camera, they learn from one another until Flemming finds himself in the hands of the enemy and Warsaw must work alone to straighten all of the problems out and bring the criminals to justice.

While 15 Minutes appears on the surface to be a scathing indictment of the relationship between the media and violence, the actual thesis is more truly that the police are utterly incompetent and without the media, no problem would truly be solved. Hawkins quasi-news show is fighting for ratings under the credo "if it bleeds, it leads." As a result, Hawkins often badgers Flemming into taking down criminals that Eddie is apathetic toward. Flemming makes arrests that Hawkins works hard to get on tape, making Eddie a target for the criminals Emil and Oleg. In the bloodbath that ensues, wherein Hawkins' television show buys the most terrible footage of murders possible, it is easy to blame the media for the problems depicted in the movie.

However, the underlying principle of 15 Minutes is that the media acts as an important watchdog for police action. How? Hawkins and his television show motivate all of the important decisions regarding the criminal activity; anything that the media deems unimportant is ignored by law enforcement. One of the first scenes of the movie, for example, has Emil and Oleg lying to an apathetic customs agent (also part of law enforcement). The agent is portrayed as slow-witted and uncaring and as a result, the obviously nervous Emil and clearly distracted Oleg are let into the country. Following that, Oleg makes a obvious, broad-daylight theft of the video camera that chronicles Emil's decent into psychopathic behavior and we never once see the police bothering to try to solve that crime. In short, none of the crimes in the movie that occur without the media's attention have any interest to law enforcement and therefor go uninvestigated. As further proof of this bold interpretation of the movie, it is only when the media pays special attention to Emil and Oleg that all efforts are made to bring them to justice.

The problem with how they are finally apprehended and the whole situation between law enforcement, criminals and the media is worked out is that all of the characters here are "types." Eddie is your archetype of a New York City police detective who has become somewhat detached and unemotional, battered into a sense of stable ambivalence from all of his work on the streets. John Herzfeld, the writer of this film, attempts to humanize this character in a lame series of scenes where he attempts to propose to the reporter, Nicolette. Moreover, Jordy is ambitious, clever, inexperienced and emotional, everything one expects out of a Hollywood action hero who is just starting out. It is inconceivable that a fire marshal would do nearly as much as Jordy does in this movie on the law enforcement side. It is simply not what arson investigators do.

The most troubling character aspect is the use of Emil and Oleg as villains. I can live with foreigners as villains, however 15 Minutes goes out of its way to vilify people from other countries by using a hyperbole of accents, lowbrow mentality and obvious attempts to manipulate what is written as a "good, wholesome America." 15 Minutes is one of those media causes of ethnic intolerance. Why? Because the question one has to ask is "Why did the villains need to be foreigners?" Certainly not to get the message across that the media breeds violence in its society. Indeed, far more compelling to that thesis would have been a young character growing up in the U.S. and seeing all of the media violence evolving into someone who killed for sport or fun or because they were desensitized to it. Instead, Herzfeld - who also directed this - uses foreigners from Eastern Europe and he evokes every possible ethnic stereotype possible. In the process, Herzfeld removes the emphasis from the media as villain and the criminal as villain to the foreigner as villain and that does nothing to help this film.

Even the caliber and quality of actors and acting in 15 Minutes cannot save this movie. While Avery Brooks and Kelsey Grammar give admirable supporting performances, they are always relegated to the background when Robert De Niro's Eddie and Edward Burns' Jordy are on screen. Burns especially comes across as an actor of medium caliber trying too hard to fit into an ensemble far beyond his ability. He is often clumsy with his body language and seems uncertain with his deliveries. Outside Burns, the acting is phenomenal, especially Karel Roden, who plays Emil.

In the end, 15 Minutes goads the viewer with questions of moral ambiguity and teases the watcher with scenes that put Jordy on the edge of becoming violent. It culminates in an incident where the viewer is supposed to feel cathartic relief and cheer for Jordy, but the whole episode comes across as formulaic and scripted and provides no real catharsis. Instead, when Jordy does such things as punch Robert Hawkins while the police and Nicolette watch, it is hard not to see him as a jerk instead and complain that the movie was Hollywood obvious.

The acting and sense of real tension aside, the movie is violent and disappointing in many ways, most notably the way it overtly dismisses ethnic diversity and becomes thematically overbearing. What starts as a movie that seeks to challenge and educate the viewer descends into the most predictable Hollywood bloodbath without any real sense of enlightenment or thematic unity.

For other works with James Handy, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The West Wing - Season 3
The West Wing - Season 1
The Verdict


For other movie reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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