"I'm going to blow my brains out right here on this program," announced aging, unbalanced newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 drama "Network." Since the late Peter Finch delivered Beale's words, we've seen good films like "Broadcast News" and atrocities on the order of "Natural Born Killers" take turns hoisting their own critiques of the information industry. But "Network" remains the standard-bearer for the genre. It's still the most smartly conceived and sharply executed indictment of the machinations and manipulations at the heart of TV news.
Its creators appear to consider "15 Minutes" a gutsier, hard-edged update of "Network." Director/writer John Herzfeld (the filmmaker behind the Tarantino-lite "2 Days in the Valley") has assembled the picture as if it were a brutal, nihilistic story of media manipulation, one deeply attuned to the sensibilities of contemporary viewers.
Neither Herzfeld nor his producers should flatter themselves. Their movie is contrived, didactic and packed with mindless violence, including a snuff-film-within-the-film. Like Joel Schumacher's "8mm," it preaches one standard of ethics and behavior while adhering to another, shamelessly serving up the same sort of rot it pretends to protest. Worse, it's outdated, coming off as a project that might easily have been made 10 years ago and then shelved. The bait was offered, so we'll take it: This movie is oh, so 15 minutes ago.
Kelsey Grammer, overacting to the extreme and apparently loving every minute of it, is among the film's chief offenders as Robert Hawkins, the conscience-free host of a tabloid show called "Top Story." He's a sanctimonious, amoral, self-promoting huckster on the order of Jerry Springer and Geraldo Rivera. How ambitious is he? Ambitious enough to ask high-profile homicide detective Eddie Fleming (Robert DeNiro, solid but hardly memorable) to restage an arrest for the cameras. Hawkins' words to live by: "If it bleeds, it leads." As if we haven't heard that one before.
The celebrity newshound is up to far worse -- like purchasing the tape of a real-life murder for $1 million. A even larger shock is coming, one that involves the fate of a major character. It's the sort of plot contour that rarely occurs in major releases. Thankfully.
In some respects, "15 Minutes" is a tale of two sets of buddies. Fleming and arson investigator Jordy Warsaw (Ed Burns) are the good guys; Czech-born criminal Emil (Karel Roden, effectively frightening) and his Russian sidekick, Oleg (Oleg Taktarov), are the baddies. Fresh from JFK airport, the latter pair are leaving a path of bloody destruction in their wake. Emil's plan is to photograph a murder with a stolen video camera, grab his 15 minutes of fame and cash in on the document he himself has created. Thus we suffer the occasional dalliance with shaky, documentary-style cinematography and pretensions to video verisimilitude. Oleg, a Hollywood-movie buff, goes around calling himself Frank Capra. It's this movie's idea of a little comic relief, or perhaps brilliant irony. Count to 15, and then laugh when you're ready.