THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When Andy Warhol famously said that everyone would eventually be famous for fifteen minutes, he probably had no idea how right he would be. Or how frequently his quote would be dissected. The new action drama 15 Minutes is not the first movie to use Warhol's prediction as a jumping-off point, nor is it likely to be the last. If the theme has been explored before, at least writer/director John Herzfeld (2 Days in the Valley) is smart enough to infuse the film with a smart, ever-shifting plot that keeps the audience on edge.

Early on, we meet two Eastern European immigrants in America: Emil Slovak (Karel Roden) and Oleg Razgul (Oleg Taktarov). At the immigration center, Oleg tells the officer that they have come in search of the world shown in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life. In truth, both men are lowlife criminals looking to collect some money they are owed from another immigrant. When the man is unable to pay, they murder him and his wife. The whole thing is captured on a digital video camera stolen by Oleg shortly upon arrival in the United States. To cover up the crime, Oleg and Emil burn the bodies up in the apartment.

Edward Burns and Robert DeNiro try to keep some killers from getting their 15 Minutes of fame
The crime brings arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) onto the scene. He is quickly able to determine the manner in which the fire was set. A closer look reveals that the victims had been murdered before the fire, which means the case falls into the jurisdiction of Eddie Flemming (Robert DeNiro), a homicide detective who has gained a measure of local fame for cracking some big cases. It doesn't take them long to discover that there was a witness to the crime; she fears for her life, but is willing to help. In the meantime, a call girl is also murdered on video by Oleg and Emil. Flemming and Warsaw use information they gather from the madam (Charlize Theron) to track down the exact whereabouts of the killers.

What no one knows is that Oleg and Emil are hatching a plan to commit a high-profile murder and sell the videotape of it to a TV show called "Top Story," hosted by an investigative journalist named Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer). Their plan is so detailed, it even includes a provision for beating the murder rap and thereby profiting from the crime. Where did they get such an idea? From the glut of TV coverage on crime, of course.

It would be best to say little else about the plot of 15 Minutes because, quite frankly, I was surprised by it. Herzfeld sets up a storyline that seems to be going in one direction, only to pull the rug out from you by going a different way. The events in the film's second hour involve the corrupting nature of fame and the moral dilemmas that arise from it. Oleg and Emil create a situation which allows the media's thirst for sensationalism to reach new lows. Both Hawkins and Warsaw are forced to make important decisions based on what happens. In the midst of the crime and video spree, Flemming just wants to propose to his TV reporter girlfriend, played by Melina Kanakaredes.

One of the best things about the movie is how it suggests that what's "real" is determined by what has been captured on video. Flemming is a master PR guy, using the media to make his department look good. He carefully dispenses sound bites about his cases, aware that the public perception of the NYPD can affect the kind of cooperation he gets in doing his job. Warsaw is the opposite, not caring about the press when he could be solving crimes instead. In one scene, Flemming lectures Warsaw about the need to utilize the media; he believes that since our culture is strongly influenced by the media, it is only fair to use it to his own advantage. The debate between the characters certainly gives the audience something to think about as well. I wondered how many times I've had my own opinion manipulated by press coverage.

As provocative as 15 Minutes is, it also works strictly as an action movie. DeNiro and Burns make a great team; both actors exude a level of intelligence that works for their characters. The bad guys are good too, conveying a menacing kind of pop-culture savvy. Although the plan they hatch is probably a little far-fetched, Roden and Taktarov sell us on it with their scary performances. Herzfeld is very smart about casting; he knows that the action scenes work best when the audience fears the villains and loves the heroes. Two of the action moments - a foot chase though the streets of Manhattan and a scene in which Warsaw is trapped in a burning building - crackle with tension for this very reason.

15 Minutes pulls out a number of plot twists designed to keep you guessing about what will happen. For me, it worked. A big reason why is that when it comes to the issue of "reality," there is much grey area. The film therefore has a lot of leeway in deciding which characters it wants to redeem and which ones it wants to crucify. This is a very compelling movie about a problem which has no easy answers.

( 1/2 out of four)

15 Minutes is rated for strong violence, language, and some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours.
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