Time Lapse

Action-packed `15 Minutes' has potential with stars like De Niro and Burns, but the cop thriller ventures into too familiar territory.

March 09, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The title refers to Andy Warhol's dictum: "In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." This brazen movie's 15 minutes may never come, because its premise is passe and its execution confused.

The writer-director, John Herzfeld, envisions an ultimate extension of tabloid television. A Czech ex-con, just off the plane from Prague to New York, kills four people and starts two fires. His Russian sidekick, who wants to be a filmmaker, shoplifts a deluxe videocam, records the mayhem, and proclaims himself a great American director. Together, they sell footage of their most famous murder to the host of a purple news show called "Top Story." As the TV news cliche goes - and gets reiterated here - "If it bleeds, it leads."

The wily Czech decides that if he and his friend prove they're insane - and who but madmen would commit their crimes to videotape? - they will get out of jail free. After watching trash-talk shows in which any misdeed can be forgiven as long as the culprit apologizes, the Czech considers America a nation of wimps. Yet the backbone of the script is the passing of the law-and-order baton from New York's reigning non-wimp - the city's most renowned cop, Eddie Flemming, played by Robert De Niro - to an up-and-coming fire department arson investigator, Jody Warsaw, played by Edward Burns.

If Herzfeld is suggesting that America's media and justice system are creating a culture hung up on cheap forgiveness, why are adventure movies like this one filled with good guys who won't lower their weapons until bad guys are held to account? "15 Minutes" comes on iconoclastic but rests on the usual outlandish hero worship.

The extremism of the villainy is meant to be satiric. Sad to say, in an era when a prime-time show like "Survivor II" can feature the slaughter of a pig, the unveiling of a snuff film on a tabloid show seems inevitable, even tame. (Anyhow, the idea of serial killers colluding with moviemakers was done to death nine years ago in the Belgian import, "Man Bites Dog.") As satire, "15 Minutes" is in the tradition of blowhard cautionary tales from "A Face in the Crowd" and "Network" (at the relatively high end) to "Natural Born Killers" and "Bamboozled" (at the low). The decibel level of the action catastrophically exceeds its thought.

Herzfeld's strongest work to date isn't this movie, or the slick, shallow cult film "Two Days in the Valley," but his cable-TV biopic, "Don King: Only in America" (still available from HBO Home Video). Jumping off from Jack Newfield's biography and Kario Salem's screenplay, Herzfeld used his gutty showmanship and gutter ambiguity to open up the subject of boxing's baddest bad-boy promoter. The movie made King into a figure hard to excuse, yet in some appalling way hard to resist.

The unearned air of moralism that wafts through "15 Minutes" pollutes its entertainment value. The Russian loves the America of "It's A Wonderful Life" and registers at a hotel as "Frank Capra," but he thinks he can become a part of America by making a snuff film. Herzfeld revels in soiled innocence. The queasiest part of the movie is Herzfeld's casting of John Gotti's real-life attorney Barry Cutler as himself. Cutler's defense of the Czech killer obviously horrifies Herzfeld, but the director's use of Cutler flaunts his connections and his knowingness. There is something appealing about the way Herzfeld's former associates (like Charlize Theron) and other crack actors (like David Alan Grier and Barry Primus) pop up in cameos; Herzfeld appears, too, as a face in the crowd. He has a warm, grungy feel for show biz permeating urban life at the sidewalk level. Too bad his Runyonesque impulse toward urban tall tales never breaks out of this film's message-movie/cop-film framework.

Herzfeld has said that "when you bring people into a film to play roles they do in real life, it adds realism." Actually, his brand of "street cred" brings the film close to the tabloid sensationalism it attacks in the unctuous person of Kelsey Grammer as the host of "Top Story." The film pretends to be the inside dope; by the end, the cascade of improbabilities and derring-do makes a viewer feel like a dope. This movie doesn't duplicate or send up reality as much as lend it hardboiled glamour. Flemming is a crowd-pleasing NYPD detective who gets the job done despite a sizable booze in-take - the opposite of those tortured AA members on "NYPD Blue."

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