By Rob Blackwelder
Somewhere between a buddy-cop potboiler and a blunted, commercialized "Natural Born Killers" lies "15 Minutes," a slick, violent thriller with an acerbic statement to make about media sensationalism.
Hard-drinking, cigar-chomping celebrity cop Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro) and bristly, business-minded arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) are on the trail of a pair of Eastern European criminals who have hit New York in pursuit of the new millennium American Dream: Get as famous as possible as fast as possible. How? By videotaping a killing spree and selling the tape to tabloid TV.
Yes, the plot just screams "gimmick!" and writer-director John Herzfeld ("2 days in the Valley") lays it on thick, like when the killers go to dinner in an upscale restaurant that shows their tabloid program on a wall-sized TV while snooty diners sip champagne. As if!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. How did two grimy Slavic thugs even end up in this fancy joint arguing like spoiled stars over who gets credit for their video being show on the wall behind them (one of Herzfeld's many dark humor touches)?
Fresh out of prison, they came to America to collect money owed them from the heist that got them busted in the first place. The burly Oleg (Oleg Taktarov) -- a brutal but childish 250-pounder with strangely wide-eyed daydreams about becoming famous -- steals a camcorder almost as soon as they arrive in New York and never stops taping.
His wiry, psychopathic partner Emil (Karel Roden) masterminds their plan to kill for fame, plead insanity (after all, what sane person would videotape his crimes?), then get rich selling the rights to their story while taking it easy in a psych ward. ("I love America," Emil says while watching "Roseanne" in their skid row hotel room, "No one is responsible for what they do.")
Herzfeld is a little too enamoured of such improbable contrivances, but in the era of "Survivor," "Blind Date" and the XFL, the incredibility of these characters doesn't seem quite so far-fetched.
Homicide cop De Niro and firebug Burns reluctantly join forces at the scene of the killers' first crime -- the double-murder of their former associates, which they tried to cover up by torching the place.
Burns ("Saving Private Ryan") is his usual stoic self, which works for his role and De Niro could convincingly sleepwalk through his part as an unflappable cop. But he makes an effort here to lend Eddie Flemming more character than was probably in the script. In one of the best scenes in the film, he practices proposing to his TV reporter girlfriend -- which may sound like a movie cliché until you see De Niro do it.
Of course, the very fact that the cop is in love -- not to mention in love with a journalist covering the crime spree -- means somebody is doomed. But Herzfeld is very deliberate (sometimes too deliberate) about deviating from the expected formula -- even as Burns romances a frightened witness and De Niro gets kidnapped by the killers.
The film is blessed with other good performances, like Kelsey Grammer as a greasy tabloid TV personality, and seasoned with heavy dollops of the director's sardonic, ironic humor -- both of which help make up for some of its shortcomings. But Herzfeld is overly self-indulgent, forgiving himself for falling back on trite and ridiculously staged moments, like the restaurant scene and the action movie shootout finale, because he's convinced he's being so very, very clever the rest of the time.
In fact, it's the other way around. Crafty strokes of dark comedy and self-awareness peek through what is largely a Hollywood-gritty veneer.
Herzfeld edits "15 Minutes" to a hip, energetic beat, and as you might expect he cuts to Oleg's footage way too much. Ultimately his vision of cop-movie-meets-cool-social-satire does emerge intact and somewhat amusing, but it's not nearly as deft and cogent as Herzfeld imagines it to be.
Run time: 120 mins
In Theaters: Friday 9th March 2001
Box Office USA: $24.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $24.4M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: Industry Entertainment, New Line Cinema, Tribeca Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 33%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 83
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: John Herzfeld
Starring: Robert De Niro as Detective Eddie Flemming, Charlize Theron as Rose Hearn, Edward Burns as Jordy Warsaw, Kelsey Grammer as Robert Hawkins, Avery Brooks as Detective Leon Jackson, Vera Farmiga as Dahpne Handlova
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