The title refers -- quite blatantly -- to that Andy Warhol business about everyone being famous for that allotted amount of time. But the film is much more concerned with America's fascination with fame and how far the media will go to keep the public's hunger for it satisfied. And well before the main plot about cops chasing down heinous criminals gets underway, it's obvious that that hunger has gone international, with the world's eyes on America for reasons that run the gamut from good to extremely bad.
When a couple of tourists, the Czech Emil (Karel Roden) and the Russian Oleg (former Ultimate Fight Champion Oleg Taktarov) arrive in New York, it's plain to see that they're up to no good, even though Oleg seems like a little kid, running around shooting photos of everything. When TV host Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer) gets into a fight with management over the ratings of his sensationalistic reality news show, it's hard to figure out exactly what his moral barometer is all about. When a horrible murder is committed by Emil, all caught on video by Oleg, who has stolen a camera and has begun his dream of becoming a famous director, the earlier bad feelings about these two are confirmed. Their deed, since it takes in both murder and arson, brings two others to the fore of the story -- Detective Eddie Fleming (Robert De Niro) and Fire Marshall Jody Warsaw (Edward Burns).
There are other main players, too, such as Fleming's longtime girlfriend, a frightened witness, and, to a lesser extent, a great cameo by Charlize Theron as a madam. But sticking with the already mentioned characters makes for more than enough action, tension and thinking about what a weird world we live in.
While everything here is working against the idea that this is going to become a cop/firefighter buddy movie -- Fleming does his job well and loves the fact that he's famous through connections with the TV show, but Warsaw shies away from any publicity -- it does indeed become one. It's a typical case of the older guy being set in his ways, even if they're not all that kosher, and of the younger guy pushing to get things done the right way.
On its way to becoming a movie about the dreams of, costs of, pitfalls of, and power of fame, the crackling script by John Herzfeld (who also wrote and directed 2 Days in the Valley) manages to keep it mostly free of any political messages. It doesn't reach out and preach about what anyone in the story is doing, about whether they're right or wrong. It just shows them, letting the audience come up with their own thoughts. But while the hunt for the still-rampaging killers goes on, and clues keep popping up that bring the people on their trail closer, things suddenly go very wrong for the good guys, resulting in an even closer and very much unwanted relationship with the reality-news show.
And it's here that the film really kicks into gear. Even though there's violence aplenty, it is not as troubling as what these supposed journalists are doing in the name of what they think is journalism.
De Niro once again plays De Niro, an actor who need not utter a word to let viewers know what's going on under his skin. But he also does quite well with his words here. And Burns, though still a relative newcomer as an actor compared to his screen partner, not only keeps up with De Niro all the way, he's also quite riveting in his screen time apart from him. But the film's biggest surprise is the performance from Oleg Taktarov, the big, husky, blue-eyed former fighter who plays a guy who's living out his dream, and in real life really is living out his dream of becoming an actor in Hollywood. Over the course of the film, he manages to be frightening, funny, imposing and sympathetic.
Like Taktarov, this is one big bruiser of a movie. And with all of today's idiotic shows on TV, it couldn't be more timely. If people take any of what's shown and said in the film seriously, maybe they'll start turning those shows off.