Asgar Leth's Man on a Ledge is certainly no award candidate. It's not as absorbing and flavorful as Contraband or as intense and thought-provoking as The Grey. But it's not as pointless and incomprehensible as Hayire either. For all its faults, it contains many of the elements of a successful actioner. You may prefer watching Man on a Ledge to the uncomfortable, drab, not very convincing Albert Nobbs, even though the latter got its star, Glenn Close, an Academy Award nomination. Nobody in Man on a Ledge is going to get any nominations, but they don't make you feel creepy.
"Ledge" stories are a familiar trope. Somebody climbs out the window on the 20th floor and hovers there, threatening to jump. Why is he there? Flashbacks follow, and a tense and intimate relationship develops with the police officer sent to talk him into coming back inside. The last two examples show writers straining to be original and abandoning the usual person out on a ledge: somebody suicidally depressed who wants to be talked out of it. In Matthew Chapman's tedious, hectoring The Ledge (July 2011), featuring Charlie Hunnam and Terrence Howard, the man may have to jump to save someone else's life. The Ledge is weighed down by numbing discussions of morality and religion.
The screenplay for Leth's new "ledge" movie, by Pablo F. Fenjves, who's previously penned a string of TV movies, is more complicated and far-fetched than Chapman's turgid effort -- and also more entertaining. Unlike Soderbergh's alienating Haywire Fenjves provides a plot it's actually possible to follow. It's the kind of plot we must not reveal to anybody who hasn't seen the movie, but we can tell you what the trailer does: that the guy outside the building really isn't suicidal; he's somebody in big trouble who's got some kind of a tricky operation going on.
Man on a Ledge is an action movie that keeps moving and maintains clear guideposts. It has some people we can like, and some we can hate, and it's got some things to say that we can sympathize with. Very appealing is Sam Worthington as Nick Cassidy, the man on the ledge, who's basically a wronged working man striving to clear his record. Easy to loathe is Ed Harris as David Englander, an evil financier and real estate magnate who seems to have a lot to do with Nick's predicament. (He's a cartoonish personification of the greed of the one percent the post-Great Recession Occupy movement is talking about.) In between are allies -- Nick's brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey's partner in (justifiable) crime Angie (Genesis Rodriguez); a couple of sympathetic allies, Nick's ex-partner Mike Ackerman (Anthony Mackie) and the negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks). Down on the Manhattan street (this takes place at the Roosevelt Hotel) there are crazies, a crowd first yelling "Jump!", then holding up encouraging signs. There's also a supremely annoying local TV news person, Suzie Morales (Kyra Sedgwick), whose station's coverage threatens to make matters much worse. And there's stuff going on at police headquarters, a lot of cops on the street, and security guards in two buildings.
Even the action on the ledge itself is unusually lively. Nick has something going on that causes him to move back and forth along the ledge so sometimes Lydia can't see or hear him. It's windy. And this was really shot on a high ledge, and the character's fear of heights, which is communicated clearly, was by his own admission felt by Worthington himself. The physical aspect comes through loud and clear.
By juggling all his narrative balls in the air, Fenjves keeps the action exciting and avoids the stagnation of the man stuck up in the air. The Ledge could do nothing better than switch back and forth between scenes in Hunnam's life (which isn't as lively as Nick's) and his conversation with Howard across the window. But Chapman wasn't constructing a movie; he was constructing a lecture. It isa mark of The Ledge's failure that the chemistry between Howard and Hunnam is more interesting than what t happens in the flashbacks. Man on a Ledge doesn't have to rely on flashbacks. Those are ridiculously exciting -- they include a high speed chase and a train collision -- but he gets them out of the way fairly early and focuses on real time. Not only is the negotiating and Nick's behavior complicated and exciting, but a lot else is going on at the same time nearby, which we can't reveal, and betrayals and alliances among the police are emerging, which makes the negotiating action involving Lydia (Banks) layered and revealing.
In Man on a Ledge, despite the preposterousness, I felt I was in good hands: nothing was going to be cringe-worthy, and there would be no longeurs. This also prevents us -- till the final scenes' pat happy ending tie things up with a neatness that's quite absurd -- from noticing how fanciful and ridiculous the action really is.
What's wrong, though, is that the thing that's going on while Nick is on the ledge, which he is indirectly a part of, could never happen. Nick would never be able to rig up a thing like this, and if he tried to, it would never succeed. Sometimes you wonder if Fenjves has really thought all this through. Even though he is willing to cast credibility to the winds, he is a craftsman, putting together a lively yarn and delivering constantly changing scenes with good dialogue.
Sam Worthington, who was noticed as the main human character in Avatar, is very winning here. He has such an honest face you wonder how Nick could ever have gotten into trouble. Not many actors are this relaxed and likable. Banks also has a down-and-dirty warmth. Jamie Bell is mainly called upon to do physical gyrations, negotiating vaults and ducts. He's also forced to enact silly, jokey sexual byplay with his stock-Latina gf -- one of the places where the movie falters in tone.
Bell and Ed Harris are the scrawniest two actors likely to be seen in the same movie this year. Harris is a sleazy villain. It's hard to believe him as a successful magnate, no matter how crudely worse-than-Trump, and hard to believe this is the actor who has done serious work in films like Pollack or A History of Violence.
But what this shows is that sometimes a not-so-good Hollywood action movie can give good entertainment value if it truly provides action and the writing contains something to chew on -- even if we can't quite swallow it all.
©2012 Chris Knipp
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