In the cinematic desert that is the January-February movie-release schedule one gains a greater appreciation for mere competence. And that’s precisely what you’ll get with Man on a Ledge a mid-budget thriller with modest aspirations and genuine popcorn appeal. Sam Worthington (Avatar Clash of the Titans) stars as Nick Cassidy a former New York City cop wrongly convicted for the theft of a prized diamond. After exhausting all judicial avenues for exoneration he takes the unusual and seemingly desperate next step of planting himself on a ledge outside the penthouse of midtown’s Roosevelt Hotel and threatening to jump. An NYPD psychologist (Elizabeth Banks) is summoned to talk him down unaware that Nick harbors an ulterior motive. From his perch above midtown he is secretly orchestrating a scheme to take revenge against the corrupt corporate chieftain (Ed Harris) who engineered his demise and prove his innocence once and for all.
Director Asger Leth making his U.S. feature-film debut with Man on a Ledge keeps the pace brisk and never allows the tone to stray into self-seriousness which is crucial for a movie whose premise is so devoutly ridiculous. The script from Pablo F. Fenjves provides enough feints and twists to keep us engaged. Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez aren’t the most believable of couples but there’s a screwball charm to their comic routine as amateur thieves charged with aiding Nick’s scheme. (Leth can’t resist inserting an entirely superfluous – but nonetheless greatly appreciated – scene of the criminally gorgeous Rodriguez stripping down to a thong in the middle of a heist.) Worthington makes for a likable populist protagonist even if his Australian accent betrays him on copious occasions and Harris’ disturbingly emaciated frame lends an added menace to his devious plutocrat villain.
Starting near the end of his short 24-year life and then told in flashback this film version of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G” Wallace’s (Jamal Woolard) rapid rise from the streets of Brooklyn to fame is told in standard-issue Hollywood biopic style. We see this Catholic honors student (played by his real life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) become a teenage drug dealer and accidental father before a chance recording finds its way to Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke) who engineers an almost immediate rise to fame fortune -- and trouble. “Biggie” now must juggle his newfound recording career a marriage to fellow artist Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) his romantic encounters with female rap comer L’il Kim (Naturi Naughton) and a major East Coast/West Coast rivalry with Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) that leads to tragedy for both. As Wallace Brooklyn rapper Woolard is almost indistinguishable from the real man himself. He’s completely convincing performing B.I.G’s biggie hits and proves himself to be a first-rate dramatic actor as well -- at least in a story like this that he can clearly relate to. As his mother Angela Bassett makes the most of limited screen time (despite top billing) and expertly conveys the angst of a parent fighting a losing battle for her son. Luke again shows why he is so promising playing Puffy with just the right amount of flash and supreme confidence. Unfortunately the “balanced” portrait of Combs and many others in B.I.G’s life is tainted by the fact this film was produced by some of the real life players including his managers mother and executive producer Combs. George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food) directs this by-the-numbers account of Biggie’s life in a style we have seen countless times before. Except for a couple of occasions he doesn’t even let the rap sequences play out to give us an idea of how this guy whose songs reflected his rough Brooklyn lifestyle could climb to the top so fast. Whatever was special is lost in what appears to be a brazen attempt to sell soundtrack albums.
This turbo-charged film centers on street racing and the people who live for it. Dominic Toretto (the aptly named Vin Diesel) is one of them rebuilding high performance racecars by day and racing by night. Since the money he makes for winning a race (up to $10 000) barely covers his overhead costs Toretto and his band of staunch followers supplement their incomes by hijacking electronics-filled 18-wheelers. The FBI which has narrowed down the suspects to either Toretto or his arch rival Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) sends in undercover officer Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) to get the evidence they need and arrest the right guy. O'Connor gets a job at a local high-end auto supply store and soon infiltrates Toretto's gang despite repeated warnings from its leader's steadfast cronies. He wins Toretto's respect and after predictably falling for his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) begins to question his loyalties. It's a stale story line with all the typical elements but who cares? In The Fast and the Furious the story is a mere formality.
Most of the actors in this film have been typecast but for once that's not a limiting thing. It almost seems as though Diesel (Boiler Room Pitch Black) was born to play commandeering ringleader Dominic Toretto. With his gravelly baritone voice and menacing screen presence he dominates every scene he is in. Unfortunately the script calls for him to utter obvious lines like "You break her heart I'll break your neck." Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight) is in her element as his cagey girlfriend but could almost be mistaken for a rottweiler on a leash. She scowls and glares over the rim of her shades one too many times but demonstrates once again that she can pack a mean punch. There is a small but surprisingly funny performance by Chad Lindberg as Jesse the mechanical genius whose ADD drove him to a life of crime. But Walker (The Skulls) is as bland as his white-bread character O'Connor and the object of his affection Mia (Brewster The Invisible Circus) is equally unimpressive. But as with the story The Fast and the Furious is not about the acting.
Furious makes up for what it lacks intellectually with pure and unadulterated action. The overly choreographed scenes of cars driving in V-formations are eclipsed by the cars themselves which are the highlight of the film. The race sequences alone will practically leave you feeling compressed and the souped-up Nissans Hondas and Toyotas will make this film an instant cult classic within the car culture. Craig Lieberman one of the import car consultants on the film even provided his own 1994 Toyota Supra--complete with Greddy Turbo and NOS nitrous upgrades three TV screens VCR Sony Play Station 19" Dazz wheels and a $7 000 custom paint job. If the car didn't actually belong to a real person it might be too decadent to be believed. All in all Furious is a dizzying frenzy of noise and speed that serves up what films like Gone in 60 Seconds and Driven promise but never come close to delivering. Despite its screeching drag races and hair-raising crashes Furious probably won't appeal to the masses but expect it to fly when it gets released on DVD.