Though Man on a Ledge is certainly a shoo-in for the most unimaginatively to-the-point film title of 2012, this feature debut of Asger Leth invites certain expectations after his 2006 documentary Ghosts of Cité Soleil proved to be an unexpected and hugely affecting treat. Disappointing it is, then, that this slick thriller is also an awkward, oddly lifeless one, directed with a surprising anonymity, which gives it the generic, homogenised feel of a bland yet overproduced TV show you might see on a network like FOX.
The film opens with a man, escaped convict Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington), climbing out onto the ledge of his hotel room, apparently intent to jump if the police do not bring troubled negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) to the scene immediately. Protesting innocence for the crime he was put away for, it soon becomes clear that something else is afoot; his escapade on the ledge is a daring cover for an altogether more dangerous venture, to break into the vault of the man who sent him to prison, David Englander (Ed Harris), and prove his innocence once and for all. While the police, some of them corrupt and in Englander’s pocket, slowly cotton onto Nick’s scheme, his brother, Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Génesis Rodríguez), negotiate Englander’s highly secure building in order to find the object that will set Nick free.
While the premise itself is a worthy enough one, the script, fashioned by Pablo Fenjves – whose credits consist solely of little-known TV films – does it little justice, stifling a clean, simple enough idea amid overdone flashbacks and a lack of intrigue in the actual heist sequence itself. For instance, mere moments after Nick ventures out onto the ledge – with an impressively vertiginous shot no less – we are cut off, thrown into a flashback sequence showing his escape from prison, while not returning to the ledge for an alarming while. Not only is it a poor move structurally – denying us time to digest the present situation and build palpable suspense – but it is in of itself excessive and needless in order to convey Nick’s back story.
Even when things return to the present, cutting between Nick on the ledge and Joey and Angie breaking into Englander’s building, sloppiness abounds both technically and otherwise; prepare to guffaw as a news-copter camera shot is replayed on a TV and is entirely free of excessive shaking and movement (which is just silly and careless second-unit work). The storytelling meanwhile just lacks subtlety, betraying any and all attempts to muster suspense; William Sadler cameos as the hotel’s valet, and when questioned by the police, says that Nick has “honest eyes”, a statement which might as well be a neon sign reading “this character will be important later.” Because it’s socially conscious and all, the film also detours to occasionally festoon the screen with close-ups of people filming Nick’s episode on their mobile phones, perfunctorily referencing our fascination with morbid spectacle, though, let’s be honest, this ground was ably covered by Dog Day Afternoon and hasn’t really been bettered since.
The heist itself, meanwhile, is actually fairly boring, a simple revenge plot against a villain whose big bad scheme is essentially a laughably simple insurance scam. The practicalities of the heist itself are wildly inconsistent, ranging from idiotically unprepared – Angie doesn’t like confined spaces, something she neglects to mention prior to the heist? – to curiously over-prepared – the waify Rodríguez and slim Bell having presumably lugged large drills and funnels around the bowels of Englander’s building for their entire excursion – to the silly stuff in between, such as when the pair manage to, I kid you not, fool a surveillance camera by taking a picture of the room, portably printing it, and sticking it in front of the camera. It is a demented genius of its own kind really, and one of the few hints that the film isn’t taking itself as seriously as you might otherwise think.
Performance-wise the film at least fares well; Banks is especially good as the feisty, guilt-ridden lead negotiator, but it is a shame that between this and The Next Three Days she keeps ending up in disappointing thriller vehicles which undermine her versatility more than they demonstrate it. Ed Harris also does a fine job as the cigar-chomping baddie; he gets a few good one-liners even if he’s obviously in it for a quick payday, and Jamie Bell shows off an American accent that puts the lead actor’s to shame. Worthers, of course, was always going to be the weak link, and though he definitely shows improvement here – his Aussie tinge mostly slipping under the radar this time – he still has a long way to go before he can certifiably carry a film without the need for talented supports to prop him up.
The performances are lost on the material, though, for the above reasons and because it ultimately abandons any sense of plausibility for an absurd – and admittedly slightly more exciting – finale, which gleefully encompasses the cartoonish and the cheeseball all at once, though crucially fails to convince as the pulsing thriller it wants to be. It plays out with the unfussed proceduralism of a network TV pilot, and despite some solid supporting work, Man on a Ledge is a forgettable, if competently-made heist thriller.
Man on a Ledge is released this Friday January 27th in U.S. cinemas but not until February 3rd in the UK.