15 Minutes

This one's dedicated to the guy who sat behind me in the theater and clapped over the closing credits.

What a frenzied mess 15 Minutes is. It bears a lot of the imprimaturs of good intentions, not the least of which is the ruins to which it leads. To its credit, it features strong dramatic performances from Robert De Niro and Edward Burns and scores big in the scenes in which it hauls out the big guns and ratchets up the suspense. To its discredit ... well, the same attributes apply here, too.

To get why, let's break it down: A double killing brings a high-profile NYPD homicide cop Eddie Flemming (De Niro) onto the turf of young arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Burns), who both resists and can't resist being drawn into the senior officer's celebrity. The killings, we learn before they do, are the doings of two Eastern European criminals who've come to America to collect earnings from their accomplice in a robbery from which Oleg and Emil didn't escape. They arrive on these shores starry-eyed — movie-lover Oleg Razgul (Oleg Taktarov) swipes a digital video camera to chronicle their adventures; short-fuse psychopath Emil Slovak (Karel Roden) provides those adventures by laying waste to a whole mess of people, starting with that accomplice and his lover.

At the level at which this is a cop procedural riffing off the standard veteran/rookie dynamic, it succeeds — De Niro and Burns work well together, and the movie even manages to find interesting ways to photograph New York. Many of the action-oriented sequences are first-rate, which, given how familiar audiences have become with these conventions, is harder that it might seem.

But that's only one face of the movie. Writer/director John Herzfeld (2 Days in the Valley) has Way Bigger Stuff on his mind — Emil comes to realize that an America nursed on daytime talk shows and tabloid news has some major issues with laying blame and taking responsibility. The solution to his money (and legal) woes, as he conceives it, is to sell Oleg's videotape of the murders to national TV newsmagazine "Top Story" and use those earnings to bankroll a top-dollar lawyer who'll get him off on an insanity plea. Then, since he wasn't found guilty, he'll be able to circumvent the can't-profit-from-your-crime laws and get rich off the rights to his story.

This is that movie about media and the legal system that you knew was coming — a combination of "Just how far can reality television go?" and "What might the logical extreme of tabloid television be?" As expected as the movie is, however, what's surprising is that it is so far off the mark.

The area of contention is not even its simple-minded approach to the media and the law, although that's worth a mention: "Top Story" anchor Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer) is presented as Modern Journalism incarnate, but at the same time is no more deeply thought out than your typical William Atherton character (as the EPA inspector in Ghostbusters or, natch, the TV anchor in the first two Die Hards), and Grammer is mostly asked to do his standard oh-no-I-shouldn't-well-why-not shtick. And when Emil sits down with a lawyer to discuss his case, the instant money is mentioned, chaka-chaka porn music starts up.

As credibility-straining as those caricatures are, what really kills the movie is that the social critique it aspires to is shredded by its conflicting tones. The whole idea is that the problems are here on our shores, but 15 Minutes cops out writ large by making Emil a cackling, wild-eyed Czech prone to spouting gems like "I read aboot you on the peaches of Peeeple Mogacine." A story as serious as Herzfeld clearly intends demands a one-of-us culprit, like in Seven. But instead, the movie opts for the hoariest action movie cliché: stockpiling the derangement in foreigners. No matter how many Frank Capra references the characters make, it's still a worse piece of blame-shifting than anything on the talk shows the movie portrays.

The use of Eastern European villains and buffoonish media types would play properly in a black comedy, and as a black comedy those views would work, though they might be dissatisfyingly broad. But 15 Minutes is so grim, so po-faced — so an action movie — that it can't achieve satire.

Part of the problem is that the willing-suspension-of-disbelief stuff on which action movies are traded — did I mention Emil is a master arsonist? — is a kind of exaggeration different from and discordant with what satire requires. It boils down to the fact that a movie can't be both a satire and an action movie unless it's the genre itself which is being satirized, which it isn't in 15 Minutes.

The reason it can't is that you can't triumph in a satire — the immoral social clockwork keeps running no matter what you do — but you have to triumph in an action movie. For 15 Minutes to end with a standard dick-swinging action climax (complete with Warsaw clocking Hawkins for suggesting the media can be his ally, to the winks and thumbs-up of nearby police officers) is to suggest that the social problems with which the movie is concerned are as easily pacified as, say, Die Hard's terrorists-cum-thieves.

Which is why the guy behind me clapped: The good guys done got that Eurotrash and gave those sleazy journalists what-for; this is a real great, important movie, ‘cause it's so right, and also full of gunplay and fireballs; I'll have to tell all my friends. The smug superiority that action movies confer could not be further from the uncomfortable recrimination satire should provoke, and, wouldn't you know, actually works against the themes Herzfeld is supposedly addressing.

Flak Magazine, March 14, 2001