The notion of America as the land of boundless opportunity and fame, especially for criminals, is explored with overbearing obviousness in “15 Minutes,” a thriller more contrived than it is exciting. Designed as an “expose” of media irresponsibility and the cult of celebrity, the second feature by writer-director John Herzfeld (“2 Days in the Valley”) announces its didactic intentions early on and keeps hammering away at them for two hours. Violent events, including a pivotal “surprise” crime a little more than halfway through, and streetwise shooting style keep the action jumping, but plot feels jerry-rigged to serve the sociological point-making. New Line release is a commercially serviceable late winter attraction.
“I love America! No one is responsible for what they do,” raves a newly arrived Eastern Euro killer, who envisions a great life for himself in a nation of insanity pleas, no double jeopardy, the prevailing victimhood mindset and the “It leads if it bleeds” priorities of domestic news broadcasting. Pic’s preoccupations are absolutely valid, but are so obviously and repeatedly stated that the film seems exaggerated strictly to pray upon latent public fears in a calculated, predatory way.
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The criminals are Czech scumbag Emil (Karel Roden) and Russian slug Oleg (Oleg Taktarov), who haven’t been in the U.S. longer than the hour it takes to get from JFK to Manhattan when they snatch an expensive video camera from a Times Square shop. Theft has a purpose: Emil, the deep thinker of the two, wants his new life recorded so he can quickly fulfill Andy Warhol’s prophecy that, in the future, everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.
Oleg, who is such a movie fan that he tells people his name is Frank Capra, does Emil’s bidding but isn’t aware that he’s about to enter the “business” on its lowest possible level, as the director of a snuff film. But that’s what happens, as Emil brutally murders an old pal, along with his wife, who stiffed him after a robbery back in the old country.
Emil sets the apartment ablaze to try to conceal the crime, but this doesn’t fool arson expert Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns), who gives an assist in the investigation being handled by celeb homicide detective Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro).
So accustomed to flattering media attention that he is routinely accompanied on sure-fire arrests by craven ratings monger Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), host of the sleazy tabloid show “Top Story,” Eddie is the toast of New York, a familiar face to every man on the street and little disposed to sharing the limelight with a guy from the fire department.
With Jordy tagging along, Eddie tries to track down a witness to the double murder, skittish illegal hairdresser Daphne (Vera Farmiga), while Emil continues starring in his own production by offing a hapless prostitute. After the verite killers are almost caught in the course of a reasonably exciting foot race through crowded Midtown streets, pic clamps down for its pivotal sequence, about which New Line is begging for “the press’ cooperation in not revealing the key plot point involving the fate of a major character.”
Without doing so, one can safely say that the character’s “fate” is captured in all its agonizing gruesomeness, and that Emil succeeds in selling the sensationalistic tape for $1 million to Hawkins, who immediately puts the snuff video on the air.
The clever Emil has it all worked out — how he’ll allow himself to be caught (he and Oleg even watch the broadcast in a public place), blame his abusive childhood and assorted other deprivations for his wayward acts, receive a light sentence to a mental institution, get out and cash in based on his celebrity and avoid being tried for his admitted crimes thanks to the double jeopardy provision. Ain’t America grand.
But although Emil has figured out the system very quickly and very well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t be tripped up another way, which in a film like this means an action climax that involves bullets flying and more than one person hitting the ground.
Herzfeld’s script handles exposition only in the most obvious ways, and irony is as abundant as subtlety is absent. Highly mobile camerawork by Jean Yves Escoffier creates the sense of immediacy mandatory for such a project, and pic’s look is varied not only by Oleg’s occasionally glimpsed video coverage but by polarized colors sometimes employed during particularly bloody interludes.
De Niro is utterly in his element here as a self-assured, celebrated Gothamite at home in all strata of society and in all situations. Positioned as Eddie’s antithesis by virtue of total lack of interest in publicity or television, Jordy remains a bland figure about whom Burns provides precious little personality coloring.
Grammer is thoroughly hissable as the valueless TV bloodhound, while most of the film’s juice is provided by Czech thesp Roden, who makes Emil into a scarily gleeful, quick-witted sociopath. Charlize Theron, who made her screen debut in “2 Days in the Valley,” returns the favor here with a bright cameo as a black-wigged boss of an escort service.