Director John Herzfeld's last feature, the droll and underrated 1996 2 Days in the Valley, was a more than adequate counterbalance to the catastrophe of his first feature, Two of a Kind, a 1983 John Travolta vehicle that, together with Moment by Moment, put its star on the fast track from superstardom to obscurity. Now Herzfeld is back with 15 Minutes, a frequently exciting thriller whose best elements are eventually undercut by the ludicrousness of its basic premise.
In the opening scenes we meet Oleg Razgul (Oleg Taktarov), a newly arrived Russian immigrant who is filled with an updated version of the cruel, delusional gold-paved-streets fantasies of yore: He loves American movies, he's seen It's a Wonderful Life and he basically wants to be Frank Capra. His companion, a Czech named Emil Slovak (Karel Roden), has simpler goals: Fresh out of prison on a robbery conviction, he intends to retrieve his share of the loot from Milos, the former partner he never ratted on. Things don't go well, however, and the understandably upset Emil overreacts a bit, leading to a pair of murders that he tries to cover up by setting the crime scene on fire.
Oleg -- knowing good material when he sees it and having already stolen a top-of-the-line camcorder from a Times Square store -- tapes the entire thing. Although Emil is at first irritated by this, he soon sees enough American TV to hatch a ridiculous plan: He'll get caught, beat the rap on insanity, sell the tape, parlay it into a book deal, "get sane" and retire as a celebrity.
This contentious pair is matched by another odd couple: young arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) and older, wiser, grandstanding homicide detective Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro). Eddie is the most famous cop in New York, largely because he knows how to play the press. (He's a less dandified version of Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential.) In fact, he's dating Nicolette (Melina Kanakaredes), a reporter for a sleazy tabloid-TV show produced by ratings-crazed Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer). Jordy and Eddie are hunting Oleg and Emil, and all four are hunting Daphne (Vera Farmiga), a gorgeous hairdresser who witnessed the murders.
It may sound as though I've given away the whole thing, but this really is all part of the setup of the first third of the film. At two hours, 15 Minutes still manages to move swiftly. The crosscutting between the cops and the killers works well, as do some major plot surprises. But, as the title suggests, the notion of the quest for media fame as a motivation for crime is central to the film. This is turf that's been worked over pretty well before -- in Natural Born Killers, among other films.
The problem is that Herzfeld doesn't seem sure whether he's making a satire or a deadly earnest action film. Or perhaps he was simply going for the latter without realizing that the premise was too unrealistic, even silly, to hold up within a relatively serious framework. In either case, the film careers out of control during much of the final third, as plot and characters disintegrate under the tension between the tone and the fantastic nature of the story. Jordy's behavior becomes erratic and incomprehensible, and we are supposed to accept that Hawkins, the TV producer, would saunter into a meeting with a stranger carrying $1 million in cash, which he has managed to obtain, seemingly effortlessly, in no time at all.
This decline is a shame, because there is much here to enjoy. The action scenes are well done. (The final shootout is basically a retread of the end of John Woo's Hard-Boiled, which is fine.) De Niro, without even appearing to exert himself, is riveting, as always. Burns has less to work with, even before his character seems to mutate into someone else entirely. Roden makes a suitably intense villain, but he is upstaged by the sheer likability of Taktarov -- whose main claim to fame is apparently winning the Ultimate Fight Championships two years running. Taktarov's broad, open face gives off the vibe of a big, goofy puppy dog; his character continues to be winning, even as he is complicit in all of Emil's hideous crimes. (Speaking of hideousness, the squeamish should be forewarned that much of the film's violence is extreme and gruesome, including loving closeups of charred bodies. Be prepared to cover your eyes.)
Relative newcomer Farmiga, who looks a bit like Sophie Marceau with a red dye job, gives an affecting performance, not all of which is the result of her considerable hormonal appeal. Showing up in smaller, often cameo, roles are Kim Cattrall, David Alan Grier and Charlize Theron (whose film career Herzfeld launched with 2 Days in the Valley).
15 Minutes is no masterpiece: Its jumbled tone and implausible bits take a heavy toll. But for those who feel like putting some of their critical faculties on hold for two hours, it's a fast, entertaining ride.