A bank robbery that isn’t really a bank robbery!
A suicide attempt that isn’t really a suicide attempt!
A Jodie Foster performance that isn’t really good!
A movie star who isn’t really an actor!
Yes, nothing is what it seems this week, except that this really is a Smackdown of the new Man on a Ledge and 2006’s Inside Man, two heist movies, each set mostly on one long day in Manhattan, and neither of them are Dog Day Afternoon. Are you kiddin’ me? Fuhgetaboutit.
Nick Cassidy (a slab of wood… sorry, I mean Sam Worthington) gets a room at an upper floor of a posh New York hotel, eats his supposed last meal, leaves a cryptic note, and goes out on the ledge. Aside from giving the movie its title, this almost immediately draws a crowd and creates a media event in the streets, which seems to be his true intention.
While he’s hanging out and waiting for the infamous hostage negotiator he’s demanded (Elizabeth Banks), we get the back story: Nick’s a former cop and prison escapee, having been framed for stealing the world’s most valuable diamond (at $40 million, more than twice what the actual world’s most valuable diamond is worth, in case you’re wondering) from a Trump-like dickwad played by Worf. I’m sorry, I’m being told that it’s actually Ed Harris and his unusually tall forehead.
Anyway, what Cassidy’s actually doing on the ledge, it soon becomes clear, is creating a distraction while his brother (Jamie Bell) is pulling a Mission Impossible-type heist to steal the evidence that will clear Nick’s name, with the help of his sexpot girlfriend (the wonderfully named Genesis Rodriguez) and her variety of skin-tight, cleavage-enhancing outfits. They do a lot of saucy bickering on the job, which is supposed to be funny, but remember, nothing is what it seems in Man on a Ledge, except for the real bad guys, whom I spotted almost instantly. And no, I don’t mean the villains who cast Ed Burns in the film.
Clive Owen and a masked gang of accomplices all nicknamed variations on “Steve” take over a bank, take everyone hostage, and then… mostly just hang out. Well, they’re digging holes and building something, but whatever their agenda is, it’s clearly more complex than stealing money and escaping on the jet they’re demanding, and it’s up to a mustachioed, be-hatted, oddly jovial detective played by Denzel Washington (in his fourth collaboration with director Spike Lee) to figure out what.
Washington has his own problems clouding his mind, including a sex-kitten girlfriend he can’t afford to marry, and some missing money that he’s being investigated for on the job. Meanwhile, the bank’s CEO, a snaky Christopher Plummer, is concerned that they’re going to dig something very private and damning from his safety deposit box, so he seeks out Jodie Foster, a high-powered… well, it’s never clear what she is, exactly but she appears to be someone rich people go to when they need someone to… do stuff. Or something.
Among the many flaws of Inside Man is that it inexplicably ensures that the audience is way ahead of its protagonists, to the point that we spend the entire last half hour watching people piece together answers we were given long ago. We deduce early that the robbery is not about money, it’s about Plummer’s ill-gotten gains in the safety deposit box, as well as scandalous proof of their ill-gotten-ness. So you gotta ask yourself, a) why didn’t Plummer just destroy the evidence long ago? b) If we assume he chose a bank box over, say, a home safe because no one would know about the bank box… how did anyone find out about the bank box? And c) if all you want is the contents of one bank box, surely there are simpler, safer, less expensive, and less conspicuous ways for this expert gang to get them than to take over an entire bank and create a city-wide incident, no?
Then there’s the mystery of who Jodie Foster’s character actually is and why she was so woefully miscast. This role had Glenn Close or Anjelica Huston written all over it; Foster, not so much. Meanwhile, terrific actors like Willem Defoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted, and even Clive Owen, as strong a presence as he is, can only do so much from behind a mask. Only Washington is really given the chance to shine, and it is largely his irresistible charm that makes the movie as watchable as it is. His best moments are in a handful of brief interrogation “flash-forwards” in which he and Ejiofor try to intimidate various customers into admitting they were in the gang. These scenes have a loose, improvised feel and contain most of the film’s funniest lines. So overall, it’s an uneven, overlong and awkwardly structured but oddly affable little film, and Lee’s best feature work in a pretty long time, proving that when matched with decent scripts (in this case, Russell Gewirtz’s)… he’s got game. (Sorry.)
Speaking of decent scripts, Man on a Ledge doesn’t have one. Sure, it seems kind of stupid as you’re watching it, but on the way home, you begin to appreciate just how incredibly stupid it is, starting with the premise. Again, the only reason Cassidy goes out on the ledge is to distract from the heist, and even then, it’s really only to distract for a few brief seconds while some explosions are set off. Surely these criminal masterminds can come up with a better, simpler way of covering up a few blasts that does not involve one of them risking his life and becoming the focus of the entire city. No?
One could still get past the general idiocy of it all if the movie were the goofy, fast-paced fun it wants to be, but frankly, most of it is quite boring. Again, the premise is the main culprit, in that because Cassidy is never intending to jump, he’s never actually in any danger and is really just killing time there, rendering all his scenes pointless. And if that’s not bad enough, the film has Ed Burns, looking bizarrely like Brian Williams, but with his usual bees-in-a-can voice. Not even the presence of usually terrific actors like Ed Harris and Titus Welliver can compensate for such a casting sin, and certainly not Sam Worthington, who I would argue is the dullest actor alive if I were actually certain he was alive. The director is Asger Leth, whose first dramatic feature this is. The screenwriter is Pablo F. Fenjves, whose finest work until now was his testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial. Seriously—he’s the one who described hearing the dog’s bark as “a plaintive wail.”
You get the sense that Inside Man could have really been a modern classic if it had just been left in the oven a little longer. For every clever dialogue exchange, there’s a flat one; for every juicy performance, there’s an awkward one; and for every three entertaining minutes, there’s one flabby and unnecessary one. The end result is one that, after two viewings, I still can’t quite recommend to anyone but the truly curious and/or bored. Man on the Ledge, on the other hand, was a crappy recipe from the get-go. So with the caveat that an even better use of time than seeing either of these would be re-watching Dog Day Afternoon, it’s an easy TKO for Inside Man.
Art, your wish is our command. From our vaults, here’s our video review. It was shot as a pilot for a mobile phone content company before that bubble burst. Bryce