There’s a curious imbalance to director Asger Leth’s Man On A Ledge. It’s the type of movie that belongs in the dull morass of detritus that makes up the January releases, the time of year that’s typically seen as a dumping ground for movies that either lack the cachet for a more high profile release, or for movies that are just plain terrible. What’s strange about Man On A Ledge is that it’s not really either — it’s not a bad movie, and it has a fairly acclaimed cast. I wanted to dislike it for numerous reasons, but there’s enough charisma, charm and intensity to make it strangely satisfying. It’s akin to eating my semiannual Taco Bell meal — I know it’s not good for me, but goddamn if I don’t enjoy the hell out of it.
Man On A Ledge features Sam Worthington as Nick Cassidy, an ex-cop who claims to have been wrongly convicted for stealing a $40 million diamond from a shady yet wealthy developer named David Englander (played with relentless and joyful smugness by Ed Harris). Cassidy escapes from prison and promptly finds his way back to New York City, where he climbs out the window of a hotel and begins a harrowing negotiation process with a Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), a haunted, damaged police negotiator. The catch is that no one knows who he is at first, and really the whole suicidal jumper thing is meant to be a distraction so that his brother, Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) can break into Englander’s high-rise stronghold and prove his innocence. None of this should be considered spoilery, since it’s all there in the trailers.
It’s not a particularly complex story, though Leth and writer Pablo F. Fenjves desperately want it to be. They try very hard to make it a complicated, twisty story, but the truth is that what makes it somewhat refreshing is how straightforward it is. The few real plot twists are telegraphed so badly that the surprises are evident long before they’re hatched. There’s an almost charming ineptitude to it all, and the film really is more entertaining than it has any right to be. It’s completely illogical, and it has plot holes that you could drunkenly fly a 747 through. Where did Joey learn to become a high-tech thief? How did they get their incredible inside information on Englander’s super-secure building? Everyone has way more information and skill than they should, and no one ever bothers to explain why. The heist portion of the film is so ridiculous and unbelievable that even the blindest suspension of disbelief will be tested.
Even more frustrating is the film’s attempt to be relevant. It takes a feeble shot at being a clarion call for the 99%, playing the disenfranchised off against the big, bad rich guy. And there could easily have been a sturdy subplot there, as indicated by the occasional shots of a rowdy street-level crowd that can’t decide whether to yell for him to jump, or to yell for justice. But the film doesn’t try particularly hard, and the sociological themes are more of a lazy afterthought than anything else. It’s yet another example of the lackadaisical writing that plagues the film as a whole.
And yet, large portions of the film work, and that’s due in no small part to a strong cast. Worthington is easily the more appealing than I’ve ever seen him before — indeed, after Avatar and Clash Of The Titans, I’d written him off as little more than a sentient block of wood with a strong jawline carved into it. Yet here he displays a surprising amount of charisma, and he gamely tackles the dramatic aspects of a man with nothing to lose and who refuses to turn back. Banks was even better to watch, if for no reason other than it was great to see her detouring away from comedy for a change. She nails the part of a cautious, emotionally scarred professional who doesn’t shirk from her responsibility despite her emotional burdens. The part isn’t written with a great deal of depth, but Banks proves herself a strong enough actor to give it more gravitas than it deserves.
As for the supporting cast, they’re all equally enjoyable. Ed Harris twirls his mustache with gleeful menace, and is able to do so quite effortlessly. Jamie Bell is capable of much better than this, but he provides wan comic relief alongside a bit of emotional resonance, and he’s simply fun to watch (though the same cannot necessarily be said of Rodriguez, who sadly provides little more than eye candy and Latin stereotyping). Likewise, Edward Burns and Anthony Mackie play smaller parts than they probably should be taking on (particularly Mackie, who really should be blowing up and for some reason hasn’t yet), but they turn in solid, smart performances. Special props should be given to Titus Welliver, essentially replaying his role from The Town, but doing it so very well.
Man On A Ledge is a mess, but it’s an enjoyable one for the most part. Casting aside, its pacing is its strongest asset, and the film unfolds in an unhurried fashion that’s bereft of flashy effects or excessive bombast, yet still maintains a gripping intensity. The dialogue is crisp and clever, and it makes it all feel like good fun. Unfortunately, it begins to devour itself as it comes to a close, descending into action movie cliché and a truly awful, inconsistent and logic-defying finale that, in addition to being far too pat, is wholly unbelievable. It’s a film that’s equally charming and clumsy, and it’ll depend on the viewer to discover which side of that you come down on.