January 26, 2012

Man on a Ledge will have a long and prosperous life playing on TNT for the next 134 years.  That’s not an insult.  Not every thriller needs to pump up our adrenaline, not every heist film has to dizzy our minds, and not every drama has to make us reconsider men and the ledges they stand on.  Sometimes it’s enough to simply be a fun little movie that can play in the background while you’re working on something else.  For the most part, Man on a Ledge manages to clear its modest bar but some key miscasting and wasted performances keep it from reaching the levels of The Negotiator or In the Line of Fire.

Ex-cop Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) has been sentenced to prison for the rest of his life for a crime he didn’t commit: stealing the $40 million Monarch diamond from evil, rich white guy David Englander (Ed Harris).  Nick escapes from prison and makes his way to the Roosevelt Hotel (owned by Englander) and puts himself on a ledge under the guise of a suicidal jumper.  He requests broken down negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) to talk him off the ledge, but his goal is to get the street shut down the street and pull the attention of the cops is all a distraction so his brother Joel (Jamie Bell) and Joel’s ridiculously hot girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) can rob Englander’s vault across the street.

There are no grand aspirations here but it’s not a lazy film either.  Documentary director Asger Leth makes his feature debut and he’s adept at keeping the tension even if he uses up his allotment of panning, vertigo shots.  The overall package is a nice little dramatic thriller where strong character actors like William Sadler and Titus Welliver can drift around the main cast, and the movie can deliver excitement without setting off explosions or even firing a barrage of bullets.  Man on a Ledge attempts to do a few things right rather than throw everything at the audience and hope that something of it will come off as entertaining.

However, with so few avenues to deliver thrills, there’s far more pressure to make sure those plotlines work, and only half of Man on a Ledge really clicks together.  The characters have simple motivations and aren’t particular deep, so it’s all on the actors to provide the personality and performances that are essential to this kind of modest thriller.  I can shrug and sigh that Ed Harris is given nothing to do other than be Evil Rich White Guy and that the role is a waste of his time and talent.  But his character is really nothing more than a plot point, and it’s the relationships between Nick & Lydia and Joel & Angie that hold up the movie.

Unfortunately, Nick & Lydia don’t work as well as they need to.  Banks is woefully miscast as a weary, depressed negotiator.  Her features and personality are too soft and while the actress is a wonder at comedy, and she did some adequate dramatic work in The Next Three Days and The Details, Lydia needed a Sandra Bullock-type in the role.  Worthington doesn’t offer much on his part either.  There’s no chemistry between him and Banks, and his character is stuck on a ledge so there’s not much for the character to do other than talk into his earpiece and play Lydia for a sap.

Thank goodness for the Joel/Angie plotline.  There’s no levity in the Nick/Lydia story, and Leth makes up for it by being sillier with the supporting characters.  He cast Kyra Sedgwick as a reporter named “Suzie Morales”, and he has no problem making sure that Rodriguez is sexy as hell in every frame of the picture.  When she’s not dressed in a cleavage-friendly top, she’s in her underwear, and when she’s not in her underwear, she’s in a skin-tight leather suit.  It’s exploitative, but we laughingly accept it because Bell and Rodriguez have such wonderful chemistry no matter what Angie is wearing.  The two banter, bicker, and their interplay helps us to overlook the fact that two amateur thieves have the knowledge and equipment to rip off a state-of-the-art security system.

Man on a Ledge also deserves credit for providing an interesting subtext at ground level.  At the beginning of the movie, the onlookers are shouting “Jump!” and taking bets on how long Nick will last before he splatters on the pavement.  Then at one point, Nick showers them with money in order to provide further distraction and suddenly he’s the people’s hero.  They still have no idea about the identity of the jumper, but now they’re rooting for him.  And since the real nemesis is Evil Rich White Guy, it seemingly taps into the long-overdue zeitgeist against the heartless business men who will ruin the lives of noble cops like Nick in order to stay wealthy.  But the scathing critique is against the crowd.  Their fickle, callow attitude and desire for entertainment above all else makes them come off far worse than the one-dimensional Englander.

But Man on a Ledge is a thriller first, and it should be.  People don’t come to a B-movie thriller for a lecture (and they certainly don’t show up when the criticism is leveled against them).  The film’s audience wants to stop looking up at the Man on a Ledge and be on the ledge with him.  But it’s not very interesting where he’s standing.  No matter how long the film plays on basic cable, you’ll always want to leave the Man on a Ledge and go back to the Thieves in another Building.

Rating: B-


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