15 Minutes obviously thinks it’s more than it is. The title (never explained in the film) is, of course, cribbed from Andy Warhol’s famous statement, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes,” and writer-director-co-producer John Herzfeld tries to drive this home here and there in the movie (even to the point of including a cover — by the oddly named group God Lives Underwater — of David Bowie’s “Fame” on the soundtrack and under the ending credits). The idea is that 15 Minutes is a hip, trenchant commentary on our sordid age — on the media turning criminals, nut cases and psychotics into “stars.” Well, that’s fine, but is it really new? After previous takes on this theme as diverse as John Waters’ Serial Mom, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, the thematic impact of 15 Minutes is in some doubt. That’s the bad news. The good news is that — once you strip away the film’s pretentious meaning — you’re left with a truly riveting, unflinchingly violent thriller made with style and power by Herzfeld, photographed in stunningly saturated color by Jean-Yves Escoffier, and perfectly acted by everyone throughout. Robert De Niro is unreservedly brilliant in an obviously tailor-made role as a beloved celebrity-homicide detective with a drinking problem. Though clearly written for De Niro (he even gets a clever variation on his famous “Are you talking to me?” mirror scene from Taxi Driver), the role isn’t a simple personality piece, but a fairly complex characterization that is far from a star turn. Teaming him with Edward Burns as a fire marshal seems at first little more than the stock odd-couple cop shtick, but the writing and playing bring the duo to life. The premise of the film — two East European immigrants (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov) come to the States to collect their share of stolen money that is no longer in existence, and through certain circumstances, realize they can become rich and famous as high-profile killers who videotape their crimes — is more clever than good. But it is nicely fleshed out by a script that presents one of them (Taktarov) as a none-too-bright, good-natured oaf who wants to be a filmmaker (he adopts the nom du cinema of Frank Capra, an ironic choice under the circumstances, since the splatter-snuff video film he’s making is about as far from “Capracorn” as you can get!). The other (Roden) is a shrewd, utterly evil psychopath without even a hint of a redeemable characteristic. The fact that Herzfeld cast actors largely unknown to American viewers in these roles adds a good deal to the believability of the concept. It’s almost as if the actors themselves are being given their “15 minutes” of fame, imbuing 15 Minutes with a subtle creepiness that resonates in the performances. The real brilliance of the film, though, lies in the way Herzfeld takes essentially formula-driven material and makes it not only fresh and effective (in part, by understanding the power of cliches as effective shorthand), but manages to keep the viewer involved through an array of “edge-of-your-seat” sequences (and one heart-stopping shock effect) that might easily have become tedious. Herzfeld has made a film that appears terribly mainstream on the surface, but which never even briefly smacks of the usual Hollywood assembly-line product. In both style (the film allows itself a rough-hewn quality) and content, there’s the invariable sense of a filmmaker with his own set of rules. It’s rattling good, thrilling, involving entertainment — and though Herzfeld obviously had somewhat loftier aims, those are pretty decent accolades.
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