October 3, 2007

Robert De Niro in "15 Minutes"

Here's yet another one of my 2001 movie reviews for UPI that had disappeared, like the movies themselves, down the old memory hole

Mar. 8, 2001 (UPI) -- A brutally violent crime movie that accuses tabloid TV of encouraging crime by showing brutal violence obviously has a bit of a credibility problem. The only way such a film can escape blatant hypocrisy is to play the whole thing as a cynical, self-condemning satire. Unfortunately, "15 Minutes" (from New Line Cinema and rightfully rated "R" for foul language, toplessness, and way too much violence), while less repulsive than Oliver Stone's similar "Natural Born Killers," is drenched in both blood and sanctimony.

Director John Herzfeld's script also seems dated. It portrays a crime spree in which a Czech thug slices up New Yorkers while his movie-mad Russian sidekick videotapes him. The bad guys then sell their snuff film to a despicable trash TV host played by Kelsey Grammar, who delivers a convincing portrayal of a weasel in heat.

Upon his arrest, the killer Czech points out that you'd have to be crazy to let your buddy videotape your murders. So, a judge declares him incompetent to stand trial and dispatches him to a country club mental home. Fortunately, in the climactic gun battle, the vengeful good guy shoots straighter. So, this reality series starring the bad Czech is cancelled.

Herzfeld's scenario was clearly influenced by criminals who beat the rap by claiming to be victims, such as John Hinckley, OJ, Lorena Bobbit, and the Menendez Brothers. In 1987, this theme would have been prophetic. In 1994, it would have been timely enough to justify its populist pretensions of being a vigilante fantasy in the tradition of "Dirty Harry" and "Death Wish." In 2001, though, we've heard it all before.

Yet, before Herzfeld begins slathering on the sermons and clich├ęs, "15 Minutes" starts out promisingly. Amusing scenes introduce us to the fine cast.

"15 Minutes" begins at JFK airport. An immigration officer questions two European tourists played by Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov. You don't have to be Pat Buchanan to sense that the Statue of Liberty wasn't meant to welcome these two to America.

Roden, a Czech stage actor, has the kind of Central European face that Hollywood loves to hate. He looks like a U-Boat captain gone bad.

Taktarov, who was a former Ultimate Fight Champion, has the perfect mug for the role of the Hollywood-loving Russian criminal who really wants to direct. He's handsome in a rather endearing, almost childishly innocent way. Yet, the left half of his face is alarmingly out of whack with the right half.

Meanwhile, square-jawed Edward Burns, the triple-threat star/director/writer of the 1995 low-budget surprise "The Brothers McMullen," appears as a straight-arrow New York City arson investigator. He's accosted in Central Park by a mugger played by David Alan Grier, the entertainingly prissy black comic from TV's "DAG" and "In Living Color." You would think that any movie that casts Grier as a knife-wielding street criminal couldn't take itself too seriously, right?

Burns quickly disarms Grier and, in order to rush off to a fire, handcuffs him to a tree. Before Burns can get back, a predatory bag lady steals Grier's trousers. Later, the mugger appears on TV pompously accusing the Boy Scout-pure Burns of violating his civil rights.

Burns makes a perfectly adequate action hero, although the script doesn't let him do much besides display his natural knack for Irish glumness. If more proven talents such as Brad Pitt, currently floundering in "The Mexican," continue to turn down traditional good guy roles, Burns may have a solid career ahead of him as a leading man.

To catch the Eurotrash killers, Burns teams up with Robert De Niro's media savvy homicide detective. De Niro frequently appears on Grammar's tabloid show. We later discover, however, that he uses his celebrity for the honorable purpose of helping him get the cooperation he needs to catch crooks. This undermines the moral of the movie, but at least it allows De Niro to give young Burns some avuncular mentoring.

Herzfeld introduces De Niro in a bravura scene. An underwater camera peers up through a basin full of ice cubes. Suddenly, the great man's head plunges into the frigid bath as he struggles to sober up. It's a funny homage to De Niro's celebrated scene pounding his head against the prison wall in 1980's "Raging Bull."

Later, De Niro spends a lot of time talking to himself in a mirror, rather like Travis Bickle, anti-hero of "Taxi Driver," another film that certainly influenced "15 Minutes." Here, though, De Niro is merely getting ready to propose to his girlfriend in a touching episode. (She's played by the lovely star of the "Providence" TV series, Melina Kanakaredes, who is the Platonic ideal of a Greek beauty.)

Although critics generally consider De Niro the greatest acting artist of his generation, he's always struck me as John Wayne for Guys Who Went to Grad School. Of course, since most reviewers are males with post-grad educations, while most viewers are not, De Niro's critical acclaim has always exceeded his box office clout.

De Niro seldom disappears into a role like Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman. Instead, like The Duke, he brings tremendous craftsmanship to the old-fashioned movie star's job of playing endless variations on himself.

The pleasure of watching De Niro is largely that of seeing a truly superior individual try out different occupations that no doubt he would have been a success at if he hadn't gone into acting. The premise of practically any De Niro movie is: What if fate had made Bobby De Niro a detective? Or a boxer? Gangster? Psycho killer?

Dr. Samuel Johnson defended this idea that a first-rate man could have been a winner in any one of many different fields by saying, "Sir, the man who has vigor may walk to the North as well as to the South, to the East as well as to the West." De Niro's vigor, intelligence, work ethic, charisma, and force of will allows him to persuade us that he would have made one hell of a detective, boxer, gangster, or psycho killer.

Director Herzfeld's best film was "Don King: Only in America," an ironic HBO biopic about boxing's grandiloquent promoter and lovable con man. If Herzfeld had made "15 Minutes" similarly sardonic, rather than pseudo-solemn and self-righteous, this movie wouldn't have ended up being so much less than the sum of its considerable parts.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve,

You mentioned that the movie "15 Minutes" had dissapeared "down the memory hole".

I'll never forget reading a movie review of a movie called "Cliffhanger" back in the early 90's in which the reviewer called the movie "disposable" entertainment.

He was quite right. Even though the movie was intense viewing and even harrowing in some parts, one does not remember much of anything about the plot, there was no theme, nothing was learned about the human condition, nothing was 'explored'. Almost all movies put out by Hollywood now strike me as much the same way.

One remembers the great films...............but not this stuff.

Thursday said...

Dr. Samuel Johnson defended this idea that a first-rate man could have been a winner in any one of many different fields by saying, "Sir, the man who has vigor may walk to the North as well as to the South, to the East as well as to the West."

While a smart, talented person can doubtless do fairly well at several different things, there are real limits to this. People who choose the wrong career can end up seriously underperforming. Would Bill Gates have made a good rock star? Hardly.

beowulf said...

Yes because rock stars the most athletic and macho of men. Come on, guys join bands because they're scrawny and can't otherwise attract girls. Gates would have made a perfect bassist / band manager.

Back in the day, he looked a bit like REM's bassist, Mike Mills.
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