Writer-director John Herzfeld's first feature, in 1996, was the delicious noir comedy "Two Days in the Valley," in which everybody from hit men to adulterers to mad newsmedia people to compulsive cops got nicely and satirically skewered. Now his second feature is "Fifteen Minutes," a film that takes itself much more seriously and is both better and worse for doing so.
Robert De Niro is New York detective Eddie Flemming, a media darling for his ability to show off his collars before the cameras. His skeptical partner here - not officially a partner at all - is Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns), an arson inspector for the fire department. They come together on a double murder that was covered up by burning the bodies in their apartment. The murderers (very well and frighteningly played by Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov) are two psychopathic immigrants from Eastern Europe, one of whom is what you might call a compulsive filmmaker. He buys himself a camcorder and videotapes everything the two do, from drinking coffee to murdering people. He even calls himself Frank Capra.
The film is the story of the search for the two men - by Eddie and Jordy, and also by TV news anchor Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), who wants an exclusive on the story.
"Fifteen Minutes" has some brilliant elements: The cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier is largely hand-held, in-your-face work, using available light and extreme closeups, and capturing the fear and excitement of both murderers and victims. It is married to the most kinetic editing, by Steven Cohen, whose rhythms and quick cuts and montages of each episode add enormously to the power of the film. Moreover, De Niro, who has walked numbingly through his last few films, shows some open excitement and wit here; and Burns, though young-looking to be the responsible arson investigator, holds his own against De Niro. Moreover, in a fascinating plot twist that must have shaken a lot of heads at the studio, one of the protagonists dies in the middle of the film.
Having said that, we now must point out that the last half of the film is an increasingly frenetic piling-on of hysterical moments, all predictable, few believable, and one - a briefcase with a million dollars in it - patently impossible. The climax is particularly mechanical, as we in the audience watch the final shootout as though it were a tennis match - to our left, to our right, then left, then right again - until the demands of wrapping up the plot have all been satisfied. In these moments, the film squanders whatever believability it might have had.