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'15 Minutes': Time Killer

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2001


    '15 Minutes' Edward Burns and Robert De Niro deserve more than "15 Minutes."
(P.V. Caruso/New Line Cinema)
"15 Minutes," your 15 minutes are here.

Oops. Now they're gone. They only lasted 39 seconds. Sorry about that.

Basically a police procedural with Big Comment pretensions, the film watches several converging pursuits of fame in the media center of America, New York City, that have lethal consequences. It's like "The Jerry Springer Show," except people fight with guns instead of folding chairs.

The movie is nothing if not ambitious. The movie is nothing if not overdone. The movie is also, well, pretty much . . . nothing.

Robert De Niro, with that big, confident Nooyawk personality, easily convinces as one of those celebrity cops of the Bo Dietl-Eddie Egan mold; his Eddie Flemming always gets his man and he always gets his best profile in the Post, his best sound bite on Channel 5. He's glib and manipulative and knows how to play the media like a rented piano. It helps that one of his pals (played by Kelsey Grammer) is the anchor of a sleazy reality-TV show and that his girlfriend (Melina Kanakaredes) is a local news correspondent. That is, it helps him, career-wise; it doesn't help the movie, because neither of these characters is vivid enough to justify much screen time, nor do their subplots really go anywhere.

This case begins when two bodies are found, reduced to ash smears in the charred ruins of a burned-out apartment. Eddie and his partner (played by Avery Brooks) deduce that they're legit deaths by fire. They are cleverly corrected by smart young fire marshal Jordy Warsaw (Ed Burns), who reads the crime scene and reveals that the two deaths are murders.

Of course we know this already. The other part of the movie has been following the killers, two scabby recent immigrants from Europe (one a Czech, the other a Russian, though weirdly the Czech is played by a Russian and the Russian by a Czech) who have come to New York to regain some swag another immigrant held for them. They are immediately whacked by the sensory overload of America, and quickly fall prey to its most pathological blandishments. They want to become famous, and so they decide that if they document their crime spree on video, then sell it to TV, that will prove them insane -- so they won't do jail time, plus they'll make all kinds of money from movie rights. Uh-huh. And these guys are from the same gene pool that spawned Kafka and Dostoevski?

For a while, as long as it's cops vs. scum, "15 Minutes" bangs along pretty spectacularly. The contrived script gets Brooks out of the picture fast, so that De Niro and Burns can have a nice male bonding moment or two, if that's the sort of thing that brings tears to your eyes. There are a few shootouts and car chases, a nice sense of the Tenderloin milieu of the Big Town at its grittiest, and of the tiny little universes, otherwise unseen by man, that cluster about Times Square. Both the stars being Nooyawkers, they make a believable pair; both the villains being Eastern Europeans (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov, by name), they make a believable pair, two wild 'n' crazy guys who want to squeeze the big American breasts of Fame and Fortune.

Uptown, downtown, all around the town: You see it all, dives and dens, whorehouses and firehouses, cop shops and newsrooms, and it's like you've wandered into a deliciously deviant variation on "The French Connection."

But like oh-so-many movies in today's film culture, where nobody ever met a story he could tell, this one becomes so jammed up with subplots it seems to run out of room, space and time. There's a terrific surprise twist at the three-quarters point that's both stunning and ruinous to the film. Yes, it knocks you out of your socks. Yes, it ruins the movie, leaving it without its engine, without its rooting interest, without, really, much of anything going for it.

Then the writer-director John Herzfeld hastens to tie all his little stories up in one unbelievable knot, by artificially assembling all the survivors at one location and running hastily through a preposterous action sequence.

Herzfeld is clearly on a Thinking Big jag. A former TV director, he has another crime movie to his credit, "2 Days in the Valley," and it was in every way superior to this, with far fewer explosions and far more complex characters. It had the bonus of introducing Charlize Theron to the American screen, and Theron repays Herzfeld with a cameo appearance she must have made time for in the afternoon off she had between shooting "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Men of Honor."

"15 Minutes" is too busy trying to make remarks to be much fun in the end. But it really only has one remark, which it reiterates about a thousand times, and it's not all that remarkable: Fame is overrated.

"15 Minutes" (120 minutes) is rated R for extreme violence and sexual material.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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