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(2001) (Robert De Niro, Edward Burns) (R)

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Suspense/Drama: A New York City cop and an arson investigator team up to track down two brutal Eastern European killers who've already crafted their legal loophole defense should they be caught.
Emil Slovak (KAREL RODEN) and Oleg Razgul (OLEG TAKTAROV) have traveled to New York City from Eastern Europe looking for a man who owes them money. When they discover that the man can't repay them, Emil kills him and another person, all while Oleg, an aspiring filmmaker, captures the murders on a stolen video camera. The only catch is that Daphne Handlova (VERA FARMIGA), an illegal immigrant, witnessed the crime and now is on the run.

Enter homicide detective Eddie Flemming (ROBERT DE NIRO), a media-savvy cop who's something of a local celebrity -- thanks in part to the coverage provided by tabloid news anchor Robert Hawkins (KELSEY GRAMMER) -- and arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (EDWARD BURNS). It seems that the two killers staged the murder to look like a fatal fire, and Jordy is upset that Eddie has moved in on his jurisdiction.

While this is all routine for the cop who has bigger fish to fry in that he's hoping to propose to his girlfriend and local TV reporter, Nicolette Karas (MELINA KANAKAREDES), Eddie decides to let Jordy tag along once they determine that the murders were indeed a homicide. As they set out looking for the killers who in turn are searching for Daphne, recording every instance of their mayhem, and crafting what they believe should be a foolproof, legal loophole defense should they be caught, Eddie and Jordy soon realize just how powerful and damaging the media can be in relation to their efforts.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
American artist Andy Warhol once stated - in a now well-known and occasionally overused proclamation that's certainly exceeded and outlived its temporal characteristic - that everyone would be famous sometime in the future for fifteen minutes. Not surprisingly, that statement is as true today as it was back in the 1960s.

What with the inane, televised reality shows and publicity stunts such as marrying a millionaire on TV, the various Internet-born "celebrities" and the old standby, the Guinness Book of World Records, more people today strive to become famous - or at least dream about it at some point in their lives - than ever before.

While fame and the effects of it have been covered in plenty of previous films such as "The Truman Show" and "EdTV," there's still plenty of ammo left in that observational gun and writer/director John Herzfeld ("2 Days in the Valley," the HBO movie "Don King: Only in America") hopes to get off a few good rounds from it in "15 Minutes," his appropriately titled sophomore effort.

A three-tiered tale of using fame and/or the media to one's advantage, the film has its share of riveting moments and clearly benefits from the presence of a strong cast. Yet, it ultimately isn't particularly that insightful or novel in how it tackles Warhol's claim or exposes the media, and it suffers from some contrived and far-fetched material and developments that eventually undermine its overall efforts.

The main story deals with a homicide detective - played to perfection, naturally, by Robert De Niro ("Meet the Parents," "Analyze This,") who could probably do this sort of role in his sleep - and a fire department arson investigator - Edward Burns ("Saving Private Ryan," "She's the One") doing that slow burn, raspy voice thing he does so well -- who lock horns over an investigation, but ultimately team up to find and stop the bad guys.

Beyond the standard "odd couple" pairing of the seasoned veteran with his younger, upstart partner that's occurred far too many times to count anymore, Herzfeld's script isn't convincing in its portrayal of the cop as a local celebrity. It also doesn't really have either of the characters using the media - rightly or not - to trick and/or catch the suspects in what would presumably be an audience pleasing ploy for a film such as this.

Where it fares worse, however, is in creating a credible relationship between the two characters. While both De Niro and Burns have magnetic personalities and they create characters that are certainly easy to watch, their initial adversarial and then eventual allied pairing and later behavior feels nothing short of contrived.

It's highly unlikely that De Niro's character would allow Burns' to tag along and help out on the case, let alone take a crucial witness off on his own. Regardless of whether it happens in real life, the whole bit about Jordy's fire department boss being jealous and angry about the publicity the police get feels forced, as does a later bit where Jordy tries to instigate the stereotypical mano a mano between him and the villain.

Although some less discerning viewers might get "juiced" from such adrenaline pumping scenes (that often idiotically come at the end of most action films where the cop decides to fight the villain rather than simply arrest him), most everyone else will see it as a tired, Hollywood showdown convention.

The second, interrelated storyline follows Karel Roden (making his Hollywood debut) and Oleg Taktarov ("Air Force One," "Absolute Force") as the film's brutal Eastern European villains. In another case of an eventual explanatory development coming too late to ward off those troubling "huh" feelings that stem from unbelievable material and then unfortunately extract the viewer from the proceedings, we eventually learn why the killer of the pair doesn't seem to mind his partner videotaping his every atrocity.

That whole bit of them using such footage as their eventual defense via the insanity plea works far better in concept than realized execution. As far as the two of them as the villains, Taktarov's aspiring filmmaker role similarly feels contrived, while Roden delivers nothing more and nothing less than the standard Hollywood style foreign villain, although he clearly does so with the required manic intensity.

The final storyline involves Kelsey Grammer ("Down Periscope," TV's "Frasier") as a ruthless tabloid TV show host who gets tied up in the other two storylines. While he certainly creates a credible such character, the ensuing developments related to him and his interaction with the others become a bit far-fetched. Meanwhile, the social commentary on the media and the American legal system touch upon some interesting subjects, but ultimately miss the mark as being insightful or scathing observations.

While the film has its share of decently executed and often riveting individual moments, along with a good cast and is certainly never dull, its sum is clearly less than its specific parts, it's too contrived and artificial for its own good, and it becomes increasingly preposterous as it unfolds and eventually falls apart under too many occurrences best described as implausible. Not horrendous but certainly far from being as good as it could or should have been, "15 Minutes" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 29, 2001 / Posted March 9, 2001

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