There is an inherent hypocricy in any satire about our fascination with violence. Invariably, it tries for the best of both worlds, giving us a lot of violence and allowing us to assume moral superiority through ironic distance. Like the tabloid television show it features, “15 Minutes” gets to decry the depiction of violence by showing us examples of what it decries. This movie, its title a reference to Andy Warhol’s statement that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, pits a cop who’s been on the cover of People Magazine against two killers from Eastern Europe who have figured out that in America “no one is responsible for what they do.”
Emil Slovak (Karel Roden) and Oleg Razgul (Oleg Takarov) arrive in the United States from Eastern Europe with two goals. Slovak, just out of prison, wants to get his share of some stolen money. Razgul wants to find the America of the movies, especially the movies of his favorite director, Frank Capra. When they catch up with their old friend, it turns out the money is gone. Slovak kills the friend and his wife, while Razgul films it all with a stolen video camera. They set the apartment on fire, but a witness escapes.
Robert De Niro plays Eddie Flemming, a detective who appears frequently on a “Hard Copy”-style tabloid TV news program hosted by Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer). He is in love with another television reporter who covers crime in New York (“Providence’s” Melina Kanakaredes). The uneasiness of their relationship stems in part from the tension between journalist and source and in part from his shyness in trying to propose to her — in Greek.
Flemming teams up with a young fire inspector named Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns) when a fire turns out to be arson intended to disguise the two brutal murders. Warsaw’s commanding officer urges him to grab a little of Flemming’s spotlight: “The better you look, the more money I get to pay you guys overtime.” But Flemming warns that “this stuff hurts as much as it helps — probably makes them nervous downtown.” It does help. An elegant madam (Charlize Theron in an unbilled appearance) turns from wary to warm when Flemming comes by to talk to her, even gushing “what an honor!” But Flemming’s visibility makes him a target for two killers who want to get on television.
Slovak is mesmerized by American talk shows, looking up “self-esteem” in his Czech dictionary. He concludes that if they can get their crimes on television and explain that it was all because of their abuse as children, “not only will Americans believe me; they will cry for me.” Slovak and Razgul sell footage of one of their most shocking crimes to Hawkins, who piously insists that it is his obligation as a journalist to broadcast it.
Top-notch performances from all, especially Roden and Takarov in their first American roles, and some powerful cinematography and editing give this film a lot of energy. And it makes some clever points about the way we see fame and responsibility.
Parents should know that the movie is exceptionally violent, with graphic murders, including the death of a character we care about. Interestingly, the most upsetting crime is broadcast to a television audience but not shown onscreen. The movie has strong language and sexual references, including prostitution. Characters drink, smoke, and steal.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we determine who is responsible for violence and whether our society creates perverse incentives for those seeking their 15 minutes of fame. They should talk about what it is like to be famous, what is good about it and what is not so good.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Heat.”