15 Minutes (2001)

by Cynthia Fuchs


It's Over Already

John Herzfeld’s 15 Minutes opens with some of that too-familiar handheld video footage that passes for “edgy” technique. Two scruffy-looking characters are arriving in New York, and as one of them, Emil (Karel Roden), fidgets a bit under the watchful eye of the customs agent, his pal Oleg (Oleg Taktarov) just keeps on taping—the grumpy folks next to him on line, some pretty girls, the increasingly discomforted Emil. “Stop fooling around,” Emil snarls. Undeterred, Oleg smiles, “I want to document our trip to America.”

Though they aren’t precisely in sync at this moment, it’s not long before these villainous partners learn to appreciate what they can do for one another. And because the movie is by-the-numbers, their villainy is telegraphed by the following cues: they look rough and unshaven, and they have Eastern European (Russian and Czech) accents. Come to collect some money from a former third partner, these two creeps immediately get themselves into deep trouble, each fulfilling the stereotype that he’s assigned during the film’s first few minutes. As sociopathic Emil commits a series of brutal murders and tortures, Frank Capra-wannabe Oleg eagerly tapes everything. It is during their killing spree that they form something of a perfect union, calculating that the videotapes will simultaneously grant them a stunning Jerry Springer-ish fame and legal absolution, since they must be insane to tape such outrages.

cover art

15 Minutes

Director: John Herzfeld
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Edward Burns, Vera Ferminga, Kelsey Grammer, Karel Roden, Melina Kanakaredes, Oleg Taktarov, Avery Brooks, Charlize Theron

(New Line Cinema)

While Oleg and Emil go about their dastardly deeds, they’re being tracked equally vehemently by both the cops and the tabloid reporters, the latter represented by Robert Hawkins (played by Kelsey Grammer in appropriately full-on slime mode), anchor for a show called Top Story, where his boss is the conscienceless Cassandra (Kim Cattrall, playing yet another version of her Sex and the City character). The head cop on the case is charismatic homicide detective Eddie Flemming (Robert DeNiro), aided for a minute by partner Leon (Avery Brooks). It’s heartening to see Hawk back on the street, but he’s very soon downed by a flesh wound, so that Eddie might deal with his replacement “partner,” an idealistic arson investigator named Jordy (Edward Burns). While Jordy is ostensibly set up as Eddie’s moralistic counterpart (so they can follow the usual buddy trajectory, i.e., antipathy turning into mutual admiration), the fireman is introduced in a very strange scene: on his way to the arson scene that will bring him together with Eddie (Emil has burned up his first two vics’ apartment), Jordy happens on a mugger (David Alan Grier) in mid-act in the park. Jordy’s in a hurry to get to his “real job,” so he leaves the unnamed mugger handcuffed to a tree. While it could be that this scene is designed to complicate Jordy’s goody-two-shoes-ness, it runs up hard against legal and even common sense, which suggests that Jordy is less complicated than dim.

Once he arrives at the crime scene, Jordy proceeds to impress Eddie with his incisive arson investigator’s know-how (he can trace where the fire began, whether the victims were dead before the fire, etc.). Refusing to be one-upped, Eddie shows off his expertise in using the press to his own advantage, while Jordy makes faces indicating that he thinks the guy is a sell-out (this coming from someone who’s just left David Alan Grier attached to a tree in the park…). And this is the film’s primary point, the eventual resolution—by hard-earned mutual respect—of this tension between the egotistical media hound and the just-doing-my-job scrapper. At first, Eddie’s cynicism appears alarmingly complete, as he’s not only whoring himself to the press (he’s been on People magazine’s cover) but he’s also dating a beautiful and ambitious tv reporter, Nicolette (Melina Kanakaredes). But when the film reveals that the dating thing is for real, that Supercop honestly loves Nicolette, it’s almost worse. The device is so trite that it’s difficult to read it as anything but.

Besides, as per the usual cop-flick plot, the boy-bonding gets more attention than the hetero-romancing, which may be just as well, since, when Eddie gets all syrupy during an attempted marriage proposal to lovely Nicolette, he’s actually less appealing than when he’s strutting and sniping at that cute Jordy. Before you get any ideas, though, you should know that Jordy has his own girl-complications, in the form of a beautiful call-girl who witnesses one of Emil’s murders. Daphne (Vera Farmiga) just happens to be in the bathroom when Emil starts cutting throats, so he misses her at first. But once he learns of her existence, of course nothing can keep him from killing her, except the fact that she needs to stay alive long enough to extend the plot, and so he stalks and terrorizes Daphne for a while.

This isn’t so hard to do, because she leaves behind some identification that reveals she works for an escort service run by Rose (played by Charlize Theron in a Lulu wig—further proof, if any was needed, that the omnipresent Theron needs to be more discriminating about her roles). Rose is a businesswoman of sorts, but she’s no more substantive than Cassandra or Nicolette or even Daphne (who has more screen time of all the other girls combined, though most of it is spent running down stairways and alleys). Every woman in 15 Minutes is a function of the film’s overriding theme, that tabloid culture is all about getting a rise out of otherwise cynical cops and villains, reporters and viewers. That this point is made here by delivering damsels in potential and actual distress is surely not news. But the strategy displays the film’s general behind-the-timesness. For all its insistence on a kind of cutting-edgy relevance with regard to today’s gritty reality and tab television overkill, the movie’s concerns are actually pretty stale. The whole idea is just so 15 minutes ago.

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