Execution is key when it comes to a good — or even just a mediocre — thriller, especially one that hinges on an implausible gimmick or plot concept. If you try to fake you’re way through it, it’ll collapse faster than a house of cards in an earthquake. Director Asger Leth’s and screenwriter Pablo Fenjves’ high-concept, low-yield drama Man on a Ledge flirts with B-movie greatness but comes up short thanks to the far-fetched plot device used to power a clunky hybrid of heist flick/Hitchockian wrong-man thriller.
The set up is a ripe one: in the opening minutes of the movie, Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington, Wrath of the Titans) checks into a midtown Manhattan hotel, orders lunch from room service, and after his meal climbs out the window and onto the ledge some 25 stories up.
In flashback we learn that Nick was an NYPD detective who may or may not have killed another cop and stolen an exceptionally valuable fist-sized diamond belonging to uber-rich developer David Englander (Ed Harris). Days before his arrival at the hotel, Nick escaped from prison. His pseudo-suicidal antics are a subtle act of manipulation to draw out opposing parties, spur investigation into his case, and serve as a distraction while his younger brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s fiancée Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) break into a vault to obtain some exculpatory evidence, using more ridiculously elaborate break-in techniques than the average Mission: Impossible installment.
Nobody else knows this at first — not the detective (Edward Burns, proving that he is indeed still alive and making movies) who initially responds to the case, the SWAT Captain (Titus Welliver) who’s itching to get Nick down by any means necessary, or the police negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) whom Nick personally requests.
Over-the-top flicks like these can — and often do — work if they’re able to sell their gimmicks to the audience. Phone Booth and Nick of Time are prime examples, both of which generated enough energy and suspense to suck the viewer into the goofy plot and make them want to stick with just to see how the nonsense panned out, and did so in roughly 90 minutes.
Man on a Ledge fails on all of those fronts. It takes forever to set up a ridiculous situation that never rises to the level of mad genius required to make it work. A fugitive decides to exonerate himself by staging a public suicide attempt that is really a diversion designed to draw out guilty parties while the B-team steals evidence from a nigh-impregnable vault? Not even The Negotiator was this absurd.
Worthington broadens his range a bit, but seems either unwilling or unable to fully invest Nick with the vulnerability the character demands, or even a believeable New Yawk accent. The actor has been a promising talent since he arrived on the global scene with Terminator: Salvation in 2009, but so far hasn’t lived up to that promise. (And no, despite its massive box office success, Avatar doesn’t count; in that orgy of eye candy, he and everybody else — with the possible exceptions of Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang — were shoved into the background by the special effects.)
The characters are mostly stock types saddled with bad dialogue, and we see their back stories and betrayals coming from a mile away. If any of them escape relatively unscathed, it’s Banks as Detective Lydia Mercer. She’s ridiculed for being a female in the NYPD boy’s club, which makes her genuinely sympathetic, and her vocal disdain for the most of other characters makes her very relatable. Why couldn’t the movie have been about her?
Fenjves makes a half-hearted attempt at social satire, as if he felt obligated to legitimize his slab of B-grade cheese: Kyra Sedgwick hams it up as the obligatory predatory TV news reporter Suzy Morales (over-rolling the “R” in her name in a gag that was play out a good 20 years ago) and her man-on-the street interviews parsed throughout the movie touch on everything from police corruption to the 99 percent; at one point, chants of “ATTICA! ATTICA!” are even brought out and dusted off. And that’s just the dialogue that doesn’t (ahem) fall flat.