Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Beware of Falling Bodies

Ah, the plight of the up-and-coming Australian actor. It seems that whenever a performer arrives in Hollywood from "down under", they enjoy a brief run on the big screen before fading into obscurity. If they're lucky, they can at least follow up their short-lived superstardom with sporadic appearances that pay the bills. Eric Bana has done a nice job following that path, and even though he has the talent do more than play secondary characters in second-rate films, that is his lot in life now. Chances of a new Mel Gibson appearing among the industry's rank and file seem far less likely nowadays, especially with more and more nations contributing new Hollywood stars to outshine those who came before. And that brings us to Sam Worthington, one of the latest attempt Australia has put forward to try and prove their relevance in today's film industry. Sure, everybody was impressed with his American debut in the fun but otherwise frivolous Terminator Salvation, but since then his career the past couple of years has been... uneven. Sure, he scored great successes in Avatar and Clash of the Titans, but neither of those could be considered "acting" films. His only other widely-released film, the spy thriller The Debt, was successful at the box office only by virtue of being inexpensively made. While I have no doubt that this year's Clash sequel Wrath of the Titans will also be a massive success, I'm waiting for Worthington to prove that he can overcome that "action" motif and prove he has talent consistent with what we witnessed so briefly in Terminator Salvation. That's what made Man on a Ledge so interesting for me. Here was a chance for Worthington to have a taste of both worlds, with some of the action that has made him the actor he is today, alongside some legitimate dramatic and thriller bits that would challenge him to expand on his usual repertoire. Being surrounded by a talented cast (including Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie and Ed Harris) doesn't hurt either, and the ensemble cast looked more than able to make up for what looked like little more than lightly clever heist film. At center stage is the Aussie actor, trying to show us that he indeed has what it takes to run with the big boys.

No, really, he just enjoys the view
One morning, fugitive and former police officer Nick Cassidy (Worthington) enters a Manhattan hotel and checks in under a false name. The man accused and convicted of stealing the Monarch diamond from Real Estate tycoon David Englander (Ed Harris), Nick apparently has little to live for, and climbs out on the high ledge of the hotel. This action soon gains witnesses, as a police and a shocked crowd gather, the law to try and save his life, the crowd to see whether he'll jump. The eyes of the city are on Nick... and that allows his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey's girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) to sneak into a building across the street with a whole mess of thieving tools. Their mission? To prove that the Monarch diamond was never stolen, and that Nick Cassidy was an innocent man all along.

We love wires
Okay, to be fair, the whole situation is more than a BIT convoluted. You're going to be asking yourself a lot of questions, such as "why does he have to be right across the street? Why not be across town?" and "how did Joey and Angie afford all that extremely sophisticated equipment they use to break into a high-security building?" "Why would Joey give Angie a chance to back out when he would have had no chance of success on his own?" "How did Nick get convicted with no real evidence that he stole the diamond in the first place?" All good questions, never answered. While the premise in itself is indeed an intriguing one, it's also the film's fatal flaw; very little actually makes sense, and yet things turn out okay for the most part. When something comes up and a character says "we're not ready yet", there's no real explanation as to why they're not and by the time the moment comes to past, they usually are. Man on a Ledge has plenty of last-second gasps, but thankfully they are not what drives the film.

Nick made sure to get a live feed of the Giants game. Because some things are too important to miss
In fact, it's the human element of Ledge that is the real treat for audiences, and the film has a bevy of talented actors to build a film around. Best is the pairing of Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez as the amateur robbers. Romantically linked, their conversations are full of humorous bickering and even innuendo, and the two have a great chemistry that makes it all work. Bell of course is amazing (as always) in a role more free-form than most he usually performs, even allowing him in one moment to draw upon his Billy Elliot history. He's an extremely talented actor, and hopefully he'll be leading films in his own right. Rodriguez, who to this point has mostly appeared in Spanish-language telenovelas, puts on a remarkably nuanced performance as Angie, portrayed as being smarter, stronger and more dominant overall than Bell's Joey. Angie is the perfect example of the strong female character you don't see in most Hollywood screenplays these days, and Rodriguez might prove herself into a successful acting career with this debut. Another strong female character is negotiator Lydia Mercer, played by Elizabeth Banks. I'm not usually a fan of Banks, but she does a fine job playing Mercer, a rookie who famously botched rescuing the victim of a similar suicide attempt and has been vilified by the press and her peers, as if she hadn't already been having a difficult time breaking into the "boys club" of the NYPD. I hadn't expected much, but the character's transformation over the course of the film is one of its highlights, one that makes the film much better than it should be. Other good performances come from cops played by Titus Welliver and Anthony Mackie.

"Dispatch? I forgot my lines again. Advise?"
Of course, the film does have major flaws, mostly in the acting department. Worthington is actually mostly okay, his energy and enthusiasm making up for some minor flaws and the fact that his Australian accent keeps popping up for no reason. He's got the charisma to lead a major motion picture; I'm just not sure this was the right one. There were two far worse performances to be had, one inexcusable and the other unnecessary. Director Asger Leth typically makes documentaries (and incidentally hasn't made a film in six years) and so his inclusion of a major character in the press corps is not all that surprising. What IS surprising is that in putting Kyra Sedgwick in that role, he has guaranteed that I'm that much further from bothering with her TV show The Closer, as her reporter is the worst representation of the free press I've seen in film. Her role is also borderline insulting, as she's playing a Latina (Suzie Morales), leading me to wonder at the laziness of the casting. I don't care if you thought she could pull it off; either cast a Latina, or change the character's name. As if we don't have enough high profile racial casting issues in Hollywood today. But Ed Harris has the unfortunate fate of having the worst role in the film, that of the completely illogical villain. His role is so poorly written, conceived and executed that you have to ask what it was that Harris saw in the script that made such an otherwise talented performer proclaim that he was in. Every decision David Englander makes during the film is stupid, making one question how he became so successful in the first place. A horrible antagonist would be a prime reason to stay away from Man on a Ledge, were it not for all the dominant GOOD work around him.

This won't end well
The stuff I liked? Anything Bell and Rodriguez and their adventures in breaking and entering, Banks' good cop schtick, the action and even Sam Worthington in a role that won't establish him as a star, but doesn't hurt his chances either. The bad? Harris, Sedgwick, a negative look at humanity in general, and a plot that is so contrived and dependant on things going JUST the right way that it becomes completely unbelievable in the face of pure logic. I enjoyed Man on a Ledge despite its flaws, but that doesn't mean that they can be ignored. For now, it's the #5 movie of 2012, and if this is the worst thing I'll see this year (and it won't be), I'll still be happy with it overall.

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