March 10, 2001 -- "15 Minutes" is a movie about fame, the ethics of journalism, the shortcomings of the U.S. judicial system and other weighty subjects. The film gives these subjects a shallow, dumbed-down treatment in the process of giving us a simplistic story with a lot of dead ends.
The story has detectives Eddie Flemming (played by Robert De Niro of "Meet the Parents") and Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns of "Saving Private Ryan") chasing a couple of killers around New York. The killers are Emil Slovak (played by Czechoslovakian actor Karel Roden) and Oleg Razgul, (played by Russian actor Oleg Taktarov of "Air Force One"). The two thugs have come to town to pick up their share of robbery money from a heist they pulled with some buddies. Their buddy has spent the money while they were in prison, so Emil kills the guy and his wife and then torches the apartment to hide the evidence. Also appearing in the film are Avery Brooks of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" fame as detective Leon Jackson, and Greek beauty Melina Kanakaredes, who plays Nicolette, Eddie's girlfriend. All the characters in the film are thin caricatures. The only one with more than one dimension is Oleg, the upstart director.
Jordy, an arson investigator, figures out that it was murder. That's when homicide detective Eddie shows up to hog the spotlight. Eddie is a celebrity, having appeared on the cover of People magazine. Jordy hates the media, but he wants to solve the case, so he tags along with Eddie. While Emil is killing everyone in sight, his buddy Oleg is busy documenting the killings on video tape. Oleg wants to be a movie director. He calls the gruesome footage his movie. This footage gives Emil an idea of how they can get rich.
After watching a few hours of American television, Emil soon figures out that Americans are stupid and they can't get enough of "reality TV" like "Cops," "Survivor," and vacuous confessional talk shows. He figures out that he can kill a famous person, be found mentally incompetent to stand trial and then make money on the book and movie rights to his story. He even finds a way to make money for a top-notch attorney, thanks to Oleg's video tape camera.
The idea of making money by selling footage of crimes you commit was brought up a quarter of a century ago in the prophetic film "Network." When I first saw "Network" I thought it was overblown and simplistic, but it looks like a work of genius compared to the oversimplified view of the media in "15 Minutes." Not only is the story unbelievable because of huge holes in the plot, but it fails on the level of character consistency as well. Characters behave according to one set of rules in one scene and then behave differently in another scene in order to facilitate a tortured turn in the plot. The ending is unbelievably pat.
Not since the "Dirty Harry" movies have we seen the judicial system set up as such an obvious straw man to be knocked down so easily. Ditto for the media. Newsman Robert Hawkins (Kelsey grammar of "Down Periscope" and TV's popular "Frazier") plays the despised newsman in this film, willing to do anything for a story. The truth is, the insanity defense is a very tough sell, no matter how good your lawyer is, even if you are insane. As far as junk TV news shows, maybe they would go as far as they do in this film, or maybe they'll go that far in the future. I sure wouldn't call it journalism, though. I would call it entertainment, and sick entertainment at that. Any station airing such a broadcast would have to worry about a variety of expensive regulatory and legal problems (can you say accessory after the fact?), losing advertisers and risking serious audience backlash. Any producer (and his superiors and the company lawyers and risk management people) would think long and hard about all these consequences before authorizing the actions taken so cavalierly in this film. Look at what's happening with the newspaper seeking race car driver Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos, and the newspaper doesn't even want to publish the photos! And who is going to put a million dollars into a briefcase and walk alone down a dark street to meet a self-professed murderer?
The scenarios in this film appear not to have been well thought out. Some thorny and interesting ethical issues could have been raised. Instead, what we have are easy targets set up and knocked down. We have simplistic heroes and simplistic villains in an unrealistic setting. There are plenty of problems with journalism today (see "The Insider") as well as problems with the entertainment industry, bluring the lines beteween entertainment and journalism, and problems with the judicial system. There are television series such as "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law," news magazines like "60 Minutes" and "20/20" that do a better job of exploring these problems than this film does. This film, in fact, is much like a made-for-TV movie. It rates a C.
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