15 Minutes: Directed by John Herzfeld, Starring Robert De Niro

Andy Warhol’s theory of fame gets yet another Hollywood workup in John Herzfeld’s actioner, 15 Minutes, this time around with two foreign criminals as media-hungry badasses.

Robert De Niro, well cast as a superstar homicide detective, teams up with Edward Burns, as an earnest arson investigator, in a frantic search of the two deadly immigrants, determined to achieve celebrity at all costs.

Shot in a gritty style by ace lenser Jean Yves Escoffier, fast-moving thriller contains enough exhilarating set pieces to guarantee a strong opening. However, the “incisive” commentary on American society’s ills is not only clich by now but also pretentious, clashing with what’s basically an ultra-violent, down-to-earth actioner. This doesn’t bode well for particularly long legs at the box-office.

Audiences may be getting tired of Warhol’s 1960s prophecy on media proliferation and Americans’ limitless thirst for notoriety. Besides, there have been better applications of the theory, most notably in Scorsese’s pungent dark comedy, King of Comedy (1983), which starred Robert De Niro as a showbiz hanger-on/loser, who idolizes America’s top TV show host and figures out a bizarrely sick scheme to get on the program and achieve celebrity.

In this movie, writer-director Herzfeld, who explored Los Angeles’ underside in the indie “Two Days in the Valley,” drops viewers into the midst of a sleazy tabloid mentality whose motto is, “if it bleeds it leads.” Story is set in a sped-up, maxed-out New York City, saturated with hyped-up reality where people demand–and get–recognition for no particular reason.

This is certainly the case of Czech Emil (Karel Roden) and his Russian pal Oleg (Oleg Taktarov), who, upon arrival in the U.S., proudly exclaim: “We love America! No one is responsible for what they do.” Indeed, after stealing a video camera from a Times Square store, they begin to record every single act of their ethically dubious conduct. Introducing himself as a filmmaker named Frank Capra, Oleg soon finds himself the director of a snuff movie that records Emil’s brutal murder of a former ally (who had betrayed him) and his innocent wife. To conceal his crime, Emil sets the victims’ flat on fire, which brings into the picture Jordy Warsaw (Burns), a young arson expert, who’ the yarn’s only novel element; there haven’t been crime dramas about arson investigators who carry guns and make arrests.

The double homicide and cover-up attempt become a high-profile case for the immoral, proliferating news media, here represented by Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), a corrupt news anchor who goes to the edge for the fame and glory, all along claiming he’s helping people get real stories told. Manipulating the media, Emil sells the sensationalistic tape for $1 million to Hawkins, who rushes to put the snuff video on the air. Hawkins thus become the film’s most repulsive character, an attention-hungry egomaniac whose desire to get the story obscures his judgment, but he’s also a man who convinces himself that he’s doing important public service.

To variegate the proceedings, Herzfeld throws into the mix a bittersweet romance and dark comedy through the character of Nicolette (Melina Kanakaredes), a TV field reporter covering crime stories who’s also Eddie’s girlfriend. Their tentative relationship raises the question of how much each is willing to risk for a story–and for each other

Sidney Lumet’s urban dramas of the 1970s (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network), which dealt with similar issues, found a way to be critical yet humanist, biting but not cynical. In contrast, 15 Minutes goes over the top in its extremities, showing professionals of every institution, from tabloid news to daytime talk shows to politics and even the police, all obsessed with getting the spotlight for a few seconds. Aiming to titillate and shock viewers, the movie transfers the reality of crime into a surreal glare of TV hype. But it’s not easy to shock American viewers anymore, partly because they have seen it before, and partly because the film is not controversial.

What registers strongly about the film is its viscerally exciting visual style, courtesy of French cinematographer Escoffier, who uses hand-held home video camera, slick TV news coverage, and other methods to convey the idea of over stimulated reality that’s always mediated. The entire movie is haunted by video imagery, with TV screens of all shapes and forms, from cheap hotel sets to a Jumbotron in Times Square.

While the contrast between the two cops is schematic, recalling numerous male-buddy movies, there’s good chemistry between De Niro and Burns, who build a relationship that’s part father-son, part intense rivalry.

De Niro gives a muscular performance as a suave and confident detective, who has learned to use the media’s hunger for hot items to his own personal and political advantage. His performance details the emotions, temptations and concerns that form the core work of a high-profile big-city cop. De Niro also shows a more sensitive, charming side in a series of comic scenes that depict Eddie’s nervous preparations for proposing to his girlfriend.

Burns is less impressive but still adequate as a shy, lonely marshal, who adopts Eddie as mentor but doesn’t really get his attraction to the media.