'Man on a Ledge' Wobbles
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Asger Leth made his directorial bones with "Ghosts of Cité Soleil," a hard-hitting documentary about the crime-ridden slums of Haiti's Port-au-Prince, advertised as the most dangerous place on Earth. The multi-talented Leth also wrote, photographed and provided production design for "Ghosts," which garnered good notices for visceral immediacy, as well as some critical cavils about its scattershot narrative. Sadly, "Man on a Ledge," Leth's first fiction film, fails, due to a convoluted plot that's also stunningly improbable. That wouldn't have to be a deal-breaker, if we were grabbed hard and held fast by a charismatic cast, and/or the film's three or four lines of action and suspense were taut enough to keep our pulses racing. Still, fortified with sufficient popcorn and soda pop, killing time with this amiable mess isn't the worst you could do at the multiplex.
Dude (Sam Worthington) comes up out of a New York subway and heads over to the Roosevelt Hotel where he's reserved a room with a view. After dinner and Champagne, this mysterious gent dons his coat and crawls out the hotel window, to perch trembling on a ledge 21 floors above Fifth Avenue. Flashback to Sing Sing, where we learn that the ledge-clinger is Nick Cassidy, an ex-cop and escaped convict who several years ago stole a mega-diamond from a very nasty real-estate mogul (frighteningly emaciated Ed Harris). His getaway, orchestrated at his dad's funeral, features a nifty car chase through a cemetery, climaxing in a satisfying car-train collision. The backstory comes courtesy of crisp, rapid cutting, suggesting that the movie knows where it's going.
But once out on the ledge, that drive goes helter-skelter. We need a GPS to keep narrative itineraries straight, threads of plot proliferate so promiscuously. Our tarnished cop deliberately requests a suicide negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) he knows to be in bad odor with her brothers-in-arms. The last poor soul she tried to talk off the Brooklyn Bridge jumped ... and he was a member of the thin blue line. We know our guy has been set up and sold out, but by whom? Which of the gazillion police assigned to manage this spectacle is bent, hot to nudge Nick over the edge? Will this stunt prove his innocence or will he go splat in the street? Repeated shots down into the Manhattan canyon far below, filled with folks urging the jumper to leap -- I mean, traffic's backed up forever -- work to pump up the urgency of answering such questions.
But wait, there's more! Across the street, in that nasty mogul's luxury high-rise, Nick's brother (Jamie Bell) and his super-hot Chihuahuaaaa (Harris' sexist-racist sneer at Genesis Rodriquez) are busy as beavers -- wrestling every kind of guard, code, censor and camera that could possibly be deployed against a safecracker trying to boost that aforementioned diamond. We've seen all this before, but we're mildly diverted by the "Mission: Impossible"-style gadgetry, split-second timing, breathless escapes. Here, it's spiced up with some lame badinage between "Ledge"'s very own Sofia Vergara clone, breasts bulging, and her less-than-hunkish BF: "Didn't I give you the best sex you ever had?" he demands, just before she slithers into a claustrophobic tube.
Meanwhile, back at the ledge, Worthington and Banks try to gin up some boy-girl chemistry. No dice. But the nice blond lady does buy his innocence, and starts checking out his old partner (Anthony Mackie, utterly wasted) and a lean and hungry-looking detective in a turtleneck, played by sometimes riveting Titus Welliver. In "Deadwood," Welliver was suave and slippery as a minor demon, one of Ian McShane's colorful underlings. "Lost" couldn't be bothered to tame his tics, or stop him from letting his idiosyncratic features do all the work. Same problem in "Ledge."
Did I mention that Ed Burns stands around the hotel room like glossy furniture, occasionally backing the ineffectual Banks during her frequent inconclusive wrangles with cops, good and bad? And playing a bellman, William Sadler, an actor whose idiosyncratic face you'll recognize even if you can't remember his name, drifts in and out, trailing neon signs that he might be the key to some twist in the final act.
By the time Leth is forced to tie up all these loose ends -- and quick -- any tension that his all-over-the-map suspenser initially sparked is long gone. The party's over -- it didn't entirely suck but sort of just petered out -- and we're more than ready to head home. Even the folks in the movie are remarkably laid-back at the end of all the unpersuasive Sturm und Drang. They almost visibly drop character and relax; no big emotional revelations or reunions, just nightcaps all around. That's a wrap.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.