The rage against the economic machine that exploded forth from movie theaters in late 2011 (Margin Call, Tower Heist, In Time) continues in Man on a Ledge. In this slight, but crowd-pleasing caper, a blue-collar hero (Sam Worthington) seeks revenge against an unrepentant 1 percenter (Ed Harris) who callously used him as a pawn in a $40 million insurance scam.
Worthington (Avatar, Terminator Salvation) plays Nick Cassidy, who checks into Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel one morning, orders lobster and fries from room service and then resolutely assumes a perch on a ledge 21 stories up. Logic insisted he wouldn’t go splat, but still, I recoiled every time the camera followed Nick’s gaze downward to the sidewalk, where a gathering crowd alternately shrieked in horror every time he made a move on the ledge or shouted encouragement to him to jump. It’s fun in a perverse way; the viewer gets to experience a vivid sense of what it feels like to occupy a pigeon-poop smeared piece of stone high in the sky.
The vertigo comes in small doses, thank heavens. From the title, I expected to spend the rest of the movie on that overhang, assuming Nick (and the story) would be pinned there in much the same way Colin Farrell and Ryan Reynolds were bound to their locations — respectively, a phone booth and a coffin — in 2002’s Phone Booth and 2010’s Buried. But director Asger Leth is not wedded to that narrow space. In short order he both delivers flashbacks and cuts to action in the surrounding blocks that illuminate Nick’s motives. A former cop, he got a bum deal at the hands of the owner of the building across the street — David Englander (Harris), a former jewel merchant turned real estate magnate — and languished in prison for a couple of years. By time Nick steps out on the ledge he has nothing to lose and everything, including freedom and the restoration of his good name, to gain.
Nick has unclear but obviously very specific reasons for being on this ledge at this time, and the movie teases with questions at each turn. Why for instance, does Nick immediately ask to negotiate with a specific cop, an NYPD pariah named Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks, bringing the right note of ennui to an underwritten part)? What’s up with Nick’s little brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and his girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), an impossibly gorgeous, tough-talking Latina stereotype, who are simultaneously undertaking some Mission Impossible-style operation that involves breaking into a high security office suite nearby? This amusingly clumsy duo seem to have learned all their badass techniques from movies and it’s fun to watch them revel in each step they successfully complete, almost despite themselves. They’re just slightly less bumbling than the Tower Heist gang.
The movie is deeply dependent on its supporting players. Harris, the one heavyweight on board, invests a campy level of malice to his role, but he’s no more than a caricature. The actual star, Worthington, makes for an awkward hero, his barely suppressed native Australian accent a distraction and his manner decidedly low-key. Worthington has the harried, shaggy look of a young Dennis Quaid and a similar physical presence — solid, meaty, a real man’s man. But lacking Quaid’s leavening mischievous streak, he’s easier to like than to fall for. His stolidity worked in another tale of go-for-broke self-sacrifice, Avatar, but there he was surrounded by color and vibrancy, however silly. Here he blends right into the greys and browns of the building he’s perched on.
Instead, the movie stays aloft on the sparks provided by Banks, Ed Burns (playing a skeptical cop), Anthony Mackie (as a cop to be skeptical about) and particularly, Bell and Rodriguez. “Really?” Joey asks when he notices Angie applying lip gloss halfway somewhere between climbing up an elevator shafts and crawling through an air vent. “Doing that now, huh?” Her shrug says it all: why not? At one point I worried that Joey and Angie might accidentally screw up the master plan by pausing to tear each other’s clothes off. If so, Joey could hardly be blamed; Rodriguez does the same kind of justice to a catsuit that Catherine Zeta Jones did to that sleek garment in Entrapment. I don’t think I’ll be the only viewer to care more about the charming couple across the street than the imperiled man on the ledge.