‘Man on a Ledge’ never plunges to greatness

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Man on a Ledge

Directed by Asger Leth

Written by Pablo F. Fenjves

U.S.A, 2012

It feels safe to assume that ensemble pieces are rarely an easy proposition. The matter of juggling good writing and proper screen time between a great number of solid characters requires some highly regarded skill, both from the standpoints of a director and a screenwriter. Casting also comes into play in a significant way. When faced with a pool of especially gifted thespians, the task can prove to be all the easier, for their individual talents can lift the project up, or it can all backfire, as is the case whenever great actors are criminally under-used. Relative newcomer Asger Leth (his only other feature being a 2006 documentary, Chosts of Cité Soleil) accepts the challenge with a New York shot heist film, Man on a Ledge.

Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) is an ex-member of the NYPD force who was booked for a rather audacious attempt at stealing from one of the country’s most resourceful, if somewhat dubious looking, businessmen, one David Englander (Ed Harris). Some links to his days as a cop linger still, such as Mike Anderson (Anthony Mackie) who visits him in prison to announce that Nick’s father is gravely ill. Shortly thereafter Nick, his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and the latter’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) attend the father’s funeral. A solemn event perhaps, but one Nick utilizes to escape from custody and make his way to downtown Manhattan where, after having equipped himself with significant funds and clean clothing, he rents out an expensive hotel room from where he steps out through the window and onto the building’s ledge, proclaiming that if Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), a police negotiator in suicide situations, does not show up within the next half hour, he will take the plunge to his death. As Lydia and fellow detective Jack (Edward Burns) assess the situation, Joey and Angie happen to be working hard across the street, trying to enter Englander’s building, clandestine style. Are Nick’s suicide claims a mere diversionary tactic and if so, for what reason?

Those fearing that the above synopsis revealed too much of the film’s plot, fear not. Everything described occurs within maybe the first 15 minutes, at most, of director Leth’s 102 minute heist adventure. Therein lies one of, if not the single most important issue plaguing this well intentioned if somewhat poorly executed movie: it feels overstuffed. The notion of creating a well balanced ensemble piece? Unfortunately,  neither the director, nor the screenwriter get a confident enough handle on things to pass that test. On whom should more of the blame rest is another debate altogether, but suffice to say that both are the main culprits in creating a film that, at its core, has a very interesting premise, supported by a promising mystery, only for the resulting product to come off as terribly overwrought at times.

It begins, as all discussions about ensemble cast movies do, with how many characters navigate the world of the film and the level of writing invested into each individual. To put it bluntly, there are characters in this picture whom the filmmakers genuinely try to infuse with a sense of character, with their attempts falling flat, and other characters who feel as though they should be playing a far more important role in the story than they actually are. Some examples of these miscalculations are, on hand, Joey and Angie and, on the flip side of the equation, David Englander and Mike Ackerman. Joey and Angie are a grave miscalculation. The audience meets them briefly during the funeral scene with a small amount of interaction occurring between them and Nick, although, as the trailer itself clearly hints at, this is merely a ruse to fool the police, meaning that by the time two two lovers are entering Englander’s Manhattan base of operations, the viewer still knows nothing about them. Yet, the filmmakers use the majority of their scenes for comedic effect of a very predictable variety: a quarreling couple. Because they have been employed to death in other movies,  the jokes are uninspired while also entirely devoid of context since, again, these people are a mystery. For what it is worth, the infiltration scenes are filled with some inventive moments involving fun gadgetry and exciting close calls. On the other hand there is Anthony Mackie’s character, a former colleague of Nick’s. From the outset some fascinating information is provided via clues which may indicate that he had something to do with the previously failed heist attempt. Despite that, Mackie is in the film for about 15 minutes in total, and a virtual non-entity during the middle portion. A worse crime still is the effort put into producing a worthy villain. Ed Harris is one of the most acclaimed actors working in Hollywood, but the script and direction reduce him to a one note, sniveling venture capitalist. A terrible waste of a brilliant actor’s talent if there ever was one. This is in addition to the fact that the grand reveal as to why the protagonists are after his empire is nothing to shout about.

Arguably the biggest disappointment is the actor at the centre of attention. It is only recently that Sam Worthington has been given roles with some more dramatic meat to chew on (The Debt being one example), yet Ledge might be a step in the wrong direction. It is a little bit strange that a former NYPD member is flowing in and out of a heavy Australian accent (while Jamie Bell, an Englishman, speaks like a typical American – remember, they play brothers), but the overall performance is stale. Moments where raw emotion should emerge out of an increasingly frustrating predicament are unimpressive, muted even. While some of the criticism Worthington has received since his Hollywood debut back in 2009 has been overly harsh at times, he does not do himself favours with his performance in this particular film.

Thankfully Elizabeth Banks and Edward Burns are there to give the picture a bit of a lift. Both are evidently enjoying their respective roles quite a bit, as each demonstrates a certain level of respect towards one another all the while falling prey to some of their more aggressive tendencies about who should do what next. It is a love-hate chemistry that adds some much needed life to the negotiation scenes. Banks in particular does have a well written role, playing a negotiator who not long ago failed at her attempt to save someone from ending their own lives, hence approaches the current situation with an indescribable mixture of determination and hesitancy.

Overall, Ledge proves to be a misfire. There are fleeting moments and tiny details which shimmer with cleverness, like whenever the audio track allows the voices of the rambunctious onlookers below to be heard (one has to love cranky New Yorkers), the visual aspects of the heist scenes, and the welcomed presence of Banks and Burns. Beyond that, the film suffers from inconsistent and oftentimes misguided writing and directorial decisions, not to mention some inexplicably wasted performers.

Edgar Chaput

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