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Incoherent 15 Minutes a mixed bag of cop-shop subplots

I can’t wait for 15 Minutes to come out on DVD.
No, not in the “ah, screw it, I’ll wait for it to come out on video” kind of way. By all means, see it in the theater, if that’s your thing. But, see, the DVD format allows so much material to be encoded on that magic plastic dingus that producers are loading up disc releases with all kinds of swell extras — trailers, documentary puff pieces, bitchy production memos, bits of story-board and, best of all, deleted scenes.
Actually, the little extras are the best and only reason to take the DVD plunge. After all, when you already have Rowdy Roddy Piper’s tour-de-force performance in Hell Comes to Frogtown on VHS and Laserdisc, what more, really, do you need? But the supplemental material can enhance your viewing of a film like the latest from writer/ producer/director John Herzfeld. Especially the deleted scenes, because watching 15 Minutes, one gets the distinct impression that something vital was left on the cutting-room floor.
Herzfeld, who amply demonstrated his talent for up-tempo shocks and quirky characters in his film debut Two Days in the Valley, overplays to his strengths in his slicker sophomore film. There’s an ensemble cast stocked with memorable personalities, including an alcoholic, a headline-hungry homicide dick (Robert De Niro, whose Tribeca Films produced the picture), a semi-heartless newsmonger (Kelsey Grammer) willing to risk lives to get primo material for his over-the-top TV show, and an outrageously violent Eastern European crook and his partner, a burly thug (played by bull-necked Ultimate Fighting sensation Oleg “The Russian Bear” Taktarov) with a camcorder and a passion for American movies.
Racing pell-mell through a potentially interesting plot about an idealistic rookie arson investigator (Edward Burns) who teams up with De Niro’s crack detective to solve a double-murder disguised as an accidental fire, Herzfeld brings 15 Minutes rapidly to a boil and keeps it there, stirring in additional elements more or less at random. In fact, the film’s a veritable cop-shop subplot smorgasbord, what with all the coping with substance abuse, rookie/mentor bonding, chewings out by angry or embarrassed bosses and assorted partners getting shot (15 Minutes sets an all-genre record as four partners are taken out in the first 90 minutes).
And if you favor the other side of the law, the crooks keep busy, too, chronicling all their excesses on Oleg’s handycam. Like the good guys, the villains here are cursed with an embarrassment of riches, motivation-wise: revenge, money, psychopathy, payback and lust for the limelight all crop up at various points. Karel Roden, a veteran of stage and screen in his native Czech republic, would be riveting as the film-buff’s venomous partner, were it not for the fact that his rootless character changes hats faster than Jonathan Winters.
Hovering in the background of all this is supposedly something big and scathing about the relationship between media, violence and fame, but it never really comes into focus. Herzfeld and his editor use a hyperkinetic, short-hand style, sticking to action scenes and skipping those that might do something as mundane as, oh, I don’t know, develop a coherent story or theme. Every time 15 Minutes seems about to take a swing at predatory reporters, or tabloid TV whores, or headline-hungry homicide detectives, it pulls its punch, depicting the very people it wants to critique as heroic in a way that short-circuits any attempts at satire. It’s not artsily ambiguous, it’s just confused.
The staccato structure also undermines Herzfeld’s genuinely diverting dramatis personae. Only De Niro’s cop gets enough screen time to create some real dramatic tension, but because we don’t get a chance to know any of the people around him, even that is one-sided.
On the plus side, any movie with a plot twist every three scenes is bound to come up with a doozy here and there, and a few of 15 Minutes’ hairpin turns are pretty daring. To his credit, Herzfeld does manage to pull off some surprises that I promise you, you won’t see comin’. Granted, that’s because the film does nothing whatsoever to set them up, but why pick nits? It’s a grand game of hopscotch, even if it leaves 15 Minutes flitting lightly over the surface of the very issues and ideas that made the film promising in the first place.