Dir. John Herzfeld. US. 2001. 120 mins.
Andy Warhol's prophecy that everyone will one day achieve their own quarter-hour of fame gets yet another Hollywood workout in John Herzfeld's actioner, 15 Minutes - this time with two foreign criminals as media-hungry badasses.
Robert De Niro, well-cast as a superstar homicide detective, teams up with Edward Burns as an earnest arson investigator in a frantic search for two deadly immigrants who are determined to achieve celebrity at all costs.
Shot in a gritty style by top lenser Jean Yves Escoffier, this fast-moving thriller contains enough exhilarating set-pieces to guarantee a strong opening. However, the 'incisive' commentary on American society's ills is not only cliched by now, but also pretentious. As such, it clashes with what is basically an ultra-violent, down-to-earth actioner, which does not bode well for particularly long legs at the box office.
Audiences may be getting tired of Warhol's 1960s dogma of media proliferation and Americans' limitless thirst for notoriety. Besides, there have been better applications of the theory, most notably in Martin Scorsese's pungent dark comedy, King Of Comedy (1983), which starred De Niro as a showbiz hanger-on who idolises America's top TV show host and figures out a bizarrely sick scheme to get on the programme and achieve celebrity.
In this movie, writer-director Herzfeld, who explored Los Angeles' underside in the indie 2 Days In The Valley, drops viewers into the midst of a sleazy tabloid mentality, whose motto is: 'If it bleeds, it leads.' The story is set in a speeded-up New York City, saturated with hyped-up reality where people demand - and get - recognition for no particular reason.
This is certainly the case with Czech Emil (Roden) and his Russian pal Oleg (Taktarov), who, upon arrival in the US, proudly exclaim: "We love America! No one is responsible for what they do." Indeed, after stealing a video camera from a Times Square store, they begin to record every single act of their ethically-dubious conduct.
Introducing himself as a film-maker named Frank Capra, Oleg soon finds himself the director of a snuff movie that records Emil's brutal murder of a former ally (who had betrayed him) and his innocent wife. To conceal his crime, Emil sets the victim's flat on fire, which brings into the picture homicide detective Eddie Flemming (De Niro) and Jordy Warsaw (Burns), a young arson expert who is the yarn's only novel element; there have been no crime dramas about arson investigators who carry guns and make arrests.
The double homicide and cover-up attempt become a high-profile case for the proliferating news media, here represented by Robert Hawkins (Grammer), a corrupt news anchor who goes to the edge for the fame and glory, all along claiming to be helping people get real stories told. Indeed, manipulating the media, Emil sells the sensationalist tape for $1m to Hawkins, who rushes to put the snuff video on the air. Hawkins thus becomes the film's most repulsive character as an attention-hungry egomaniac whose desire to get the story obscures his judgment. But he is also a man who convinces himself he is doing an important public service.
To vary the proceedings, Herzfeld throws into the mix a bittersweet romance and dark comedy through the character of Nicolette (Kanakaredes), a TV field reporter covering crime stories who is also Eddie's girlfriend. Their tentative relationship raises the question of how much each is willing to risk for a story - and for each other.
Sidney Lumet's urban dramas of the 1970s (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network), which dealt with similar issues, found a way to be critical yet humanist, biting but not cynical. In contrast, 15 Minutes is over the top in the extremes it goes to, showing professionals of every institution, from tabloid news to daytime talk shows to politics and even the police, all obsessed with getting the spotlight for a few seconds.
Aiming to titillate and shock viewers, the movie transfers the reality of crime into a surreal glare of TV hype. But it is not easy to shock American viewers anymore, partly because they have seen it all before and partly because the film is not in the least controversial.
What registers strongly is a viscerally-exciting visual style, aided by French cinematographer Escoffier, who uses hand-held home video camera, slick TV news coverage and other methods to convey the idea of an overstimulated reality that is always mediated. The entire movie is haunted by video imagery, with TV screens of all shapes and forms, from cheap hotel sets to a Jumbotron in Times Square.
While the contrast between the two cops is schematic, recalling numerous male buddy movies, there is good chemistry between De Niro and Burns, who build a relationship that is part father-son, part intense rivalry.
De Niro gives a muscular performance as a suave and confident detective, who has learned to use the media's hunger for hot items to his own personal and political advantage. His performance details the emotions, temptations and concerns that form the core work of a high-profile big-city cop. He also shows a more sensitive, charming side in a series of comic scenes that depict Eddie's nervous preparations for proposing to his girlfriend. Burns is less impressive but still adequate as a shy, lonely marshal, who adopts Eddie as mentor but does not really understand his attraction to the media.
Prod co: New Line, Industry Entertainment, New Redemption, Tribeca production. US/int' l dist: New Line. Exec prod: Claire Rudnick Polstein. Prods: Nick Wechsler, Keith Addis, David Blocker, John Herzfeld. Scr: Herzfeld. Cinematographer: Jean Yves Escoffier. Prod des: Mayne Berke. Ed: Steven Cohen. Music: Anthony Marinelli. Main cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Burns, Kelsey Grammer, Melina Kanakaredes, Karel Roden, Oleg Taktarov