Bob the bum

Film - Philip Kerr discovers that Robert De Niro is following the money, and not good scripts

Fifteen minutes is slightly longer than it took me to realise that I was not going to enjoy this film, starring Robert De Niro, Edward Burns and Kelsey Grammer. Some of the picture is quite entertaining to look at, but mostly it is cynical and self-regarding. To that extent, it resembles the work of Andy Warhol, whose gnomic and mathematically improbable axiom concerning the debased currency of fame and celebrity (which inspired the title of this film) seems likely to achieve a more lasting cultural resonance than any of those dreadful silk-screens featuring Marilyn Monroe, Elvis or the electric chair.

The writer and director John Herzfeld attempts to make an issue-driven film saying something important about violence and the media. But what he ends up with is nothing more than a silk-screen of Dirty Harry and, as such, worthy of a place in the collection of Jeffrey Archer.

Like Archer, the film is ethically incompetent. It is so busy trying to pick the mote out of the eye of tabloid TV - how far will society's most desperate people go in order to get their 15 minutes of fame, and just how willing is the public to watch? - that it quite forgets the Smith & Wesson-sized plank in its own eye. A bigger problem than the trailer-park values of American television is surely the country's craven dependence on firearms. Like the most hopeless crack addict, Uncle Sam's gun problem is the scandal of the civilised world. There is one moment in the movie when, ludicrously, everyone seems to have a gun in his hand, the way Finns have mobile phones; and the alacrity with which guns are brandished and fired in this picture would not look out of place among the trigger-happy Israelis.

Two eastern Europeans arrive in America - in all normal circumstances, they would not have got past Immigration Control - steal a video camera and then visit an old comrade in crime. When he fails to cough up their share of the loot from a Russian bank robbery, our two latter-day Eisensteins - they have decided to pay homage to the American dream by chronicling their picaresque adventures on film - stab their friend to death and torch his apartment. Cue De Niro as the homicide cop and Burns as the arson investigator; and, quicker than you can say "homoerotic", we have the standard David and Jonathan, Oscar and Bosie, Peter and Reinaldo buddy story about an older, experienced man, who is on the edge of turning vigilante, and his young rookie protege. Except that, in this film, it is the rookie who is on the verge of turning vigilante.

It is amazing the speed with which these guys - here Ed Burns, but before him Charles Grodin, Jeremy Irons, Anne Heche, Rocky and Bullwinkle - manage to get cosy with "Bob". I have met him six times. I had lunch with him. He sent me a case of Chateau Latour 1970 at Christmas. Hell, I've even kissed the sonofabitch. So believe me when I tell you that the man buddies up like Ozymandias. Which is not to say that I don't have tremendous admiration for "Bob". I do. It's just that, right now, he takes pictures the way Joe Louis used to take fights. "Bob" has his very own "Bum of the Month" club: The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet the Parents, Analyze This, Fifteen Minutes, and many more.

The thing that made De Niro so good was not all that acting-school nonsense about how he was prepared to go to almost any length in search of a great screen performance, blah-blah, method, blah-blah, took risks, blah-blah, lived the part, and so on. No, the thing that made him great was that he took great scripts. The reason De Niro doesn't take great scripts any more is simple: he takes the money instead. He takes the money because he has to pay a lot of very highly paid executives at Tribeca Films, the New York-based production company he owns, out of his own pocket. It is for this reason that, so long as Tribeca exists, we have probably seen the last of the great De Niro.

There is one scene in Fifteen Minutes between De Niro and the two baddies which illustrates my point. De Niro is facing possible death, and yet he looks, to my mind, as if the three of them had been having a good laugh about something a few seconds before the camera started rolling. The old De Niro would have seen that and done the scene again. The new De Niro is just coasting.

Five years ago, I remember making critical noises to "Bob" about the parts he was taking, to the effect that I thought he could probably play gangsters and cops in his sleep. On the strength of this execrable film, it would appear that "Bob" must have assumed I was making a suggestion.

Fifteen Minutes (18) is showing at cinemas nationwide

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube