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'15 Minutes'

De Niro's latest action flick doesn't shoot straight

Friday, March 09, 2001

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

In the "Crime + TV = Celebrity" equation, the movie "15 Minutes" comes years late and millions of dollars short, judging from what its budget must have been for flammables.

'15 Minutes'

RATING: R, for strong violence, language and some sexuality.

PLAYERS: Robert De Niro, Edward Burns.

DIRECTOR: John Herzfeld

WEB SITE: www.15minutes



But the film's writer and director, John Herzfeld, should have known better. He perpetrated several assaults upon the American viewing public a decade ago, when made-for-television movies ripped from the tabloid headlines still caused a fuss.

Herzfeld's rap sheet includes "The Preppie Murders" and one of the three flicks rushed to the small screen in 1993 about Amy Fisher, the Long Island Lolita (how soon we forget).

To be fair, he also filmed the recent Emmy-winning Don King biofilm for HBO. But "15 Minutes" -- do I have to tell you it's named after Andy Warhol's famous dictum about fame? -- is so haphazardly plotted and so ultimately self-destructive that I almost felt punchy by the time it ended, which was long after I wanted it to.

The movie starts with three seemingly unconnected events: two Eastern European men going through customs, a behind-the-scenes argument at a tabloid TV show and Robert De Niro dunking his head in a sink full of ice as a hangover cure.

De Niro plays a cop, Eddie Flemming, who has become a minor New York City celebrity for allowing tabloid host Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer) to film his more sensational arrests. Hawkins is angry because his show's new producer is following orders to cut the show's gore quotient.

But he's not as mad, in every sense, as the two newcomers, Emil (Karel Roden) and Oleg (Oleg Taktarov). No-nonsense Emil has come to America for some money he's owed. When he doesn't get it, he goes into a rage and kills two people, then sets their apartment on fire to cover his tracks.

But smiling, bearlike Oleg has an additional agenda. He wants to make movies (he checks into hotels under the name Frank Capra). But this is no wonderful life. He videotapes everything, including Emil's murderous acts. Ultimately, his obsession triggers an outrageous plan on their part.

But the attempted media satire must wait while Flemming and arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) enter the charred apartment and try to determine what happened and why. Jordy resents Flemming less for his reputation than for poaching on his crime scene. At the same time, he's fascinated enough to tag along with the older man, hoping to learn something (or to share the spotlight, or possibly both).

The first half of the movie thus turns into a police procedural featuring a veteran-rookie dynamic in which chemistry slowly builds between De Niro and Burns. And just when you think it's going somewhere, the movie takes a 90-degree turn and demolishes the entire tone of the first half, not to mention its own internal logic.

Just minutes after Flemming warns Jordy about the dangers of being alone with a reluctant female witness, Jordy's boss (who was even angrier at his stupidity) orders him to take her back to her apartment to gather her things -- just the two of them. Meanwhile, following Flemming's dissertation on learning to take care of yourself, he reacts to a phantom knock on his door like a child offered candy by a stranger.

But it's no more cockeyed than Emil and Oleg. Having seen enough of American tabloid television, they decide (this is just for starters) to sell the tape of their crimes to the highest bidder -- Robert Hawkins, of course. Point Park College alumna Melina Kanakaredes plays another TV reporter, whose interest in Eddie Flemming is more than just professional.

But at this point, we're way beyond even black humor. The violence of the murders Emil commits is no laughing matter. The procedural tone of the first half works against the lunacy required to pull off the attempted media satire of the second half. And having taken so long to get where it's going, the movie compounds the felony by providing a false ending so that it can lurch into complete absurdity.

But what can be more absurd than some of the things we actually see on TV these days? In Herzfeld's hands, "15 Minutes" plays like a film made by someone who thinks Jerry Springer takes himself seriously.

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