A clumsy "Network"-style opening, featuring Kelsey Grammer as a sensationalistic telejournalist, is thankfully short-lived as the film shifts focus and morphs into a surprisingly gritty crime drama with Robert De Niro and Edward Burns as, respectively, a famous homicide detective and a low-profile fire marshal who join forces to solve a combination arson/homicide. That crime, however, is but the beginning of a long and increasingly vicious crime spree for a pair of East European bank robbers (Karel Roden and Oleg Takarov), one Russian and the other Czech, who arrive in the U.S. in search of missing loot only to find something far more beguiling--the promise of fame, fortune and all-American infamy.
As communication-culture has grown increasingly convoluted and complicated, from radio to television to cable to the internet, so also have movies purporting to tackle the heady issues of that culture. Sadly, successful efforts like "To Die For" are few and far between, with audiences more often forced to endure the nit-witted doldrums of "Hero" and "Mad City." It's therefore something of a small victory that "15 Minutes" even comes close to succeeding. For nearly 90 minutes, as De Niro and Burns go about their appointed rounds, any and all subtext relating to media-muddled culture is buried solidly beneath the veneer of a Sidney Lumet-style crime thriller, delivering its message via a kind of subconscious drip even as it pumps iron on the screen. Two-thirds of the way through this sterling accomplishment, however, Herzfeld seems to lose faith in the audience's ability to read between the lines, stripping away all vestiges of subtlety and letting the film spiral hopelessly out of control, finally resolving in a finale as ludicrous and far-fetched as the latest tabloid headline.
Fortunately for Herzfeld, "15 Minutes" fails with style, making it easy to separate the good from the bad, even if the latter outweighs the former. De Niro and Burns are excellent in the mismatched buddy axis and supporting baddies Roden and Takarov are as gruesome and menacing as East bloc villains are traditionally supposed to be. Furthermore, Herzfeld's command of complicated set pieces--car chases, pyrotechnic displays--demonstrates a far more capable talent than any of his previous efforts, a small triumph which should, in some small way, ensure him bigger and better things to come. Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Burns, Kelsey Grammer, Vera Farmiga, Melina Kanakaredes, Karel Roden and Oleg Takarov. Written and directed by John Herzfeld. Produced by Keith Addis, David Blocker, John Herzfeld and Nick Wechsler. A New Line Cinema release. Suspense/Action. Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality. Running time: 121 min