Acrophobia, or fear of heights, has become a favourite effect in movies the last couple of months, from Brett Ratner's Tower Heist to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and now, the would-be thriller Man on a Ledge, in which credibility takes a nose-dive long before its protagonist is separated from his perch.
In an opening scene, Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) checks into Manhattan's Roosevelt Hotel, pays cash at the front desk and orders a fancy dinner with champagne. He wipes the room clear of finger prints and then steps out onto the window ledge. A crowd forms below on the street, waving their smartphone cameras to take pictures and encouraging him to jump. All this seems improbable for the relatively polite (and very busy) New York of 2012, but it seems to be a case of the screenplay showing its roots.
The opening echoes director Henry Hathaway's 1951 classic, Fourteen Hours, and there are touches of Dog Day Afternoon here as well. None of it rings true, except perhaps the presence of an ambitious local TV news reporter (Kyra Sedgwick) who begins recording every macabre moment with relish.
Ed Burns is the New York detective in a Columbo trench coat who gets into the hotel room and tries to find out the stranger's reason for being on the ledge. We're not kept in the dark for long. A flashback to a month earlier reveals that Nick is a former New York cop who somehow ended up in prison, and then managed to escape after being temporarily released for his father's funeral.
His misfortunes are somehow tied to a predatory, Donald Trump-style cocky developer, David Englander (Ed Harris), who, by no coincidence, is about to unveil his new high-rise tower on the same day at a press conference. Nick is out on the ledge to create a diversion while his younger brother, Joey (Jamie Bell), and his feisty girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), engage in a break-in to clear Nick's name.
As part of his plan to prove his innocence, Nick demands to speak to Detective Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), a cop and counsellor who lost a jumper a month previously, and whom he seems to have researched extensively. She arrives at the scene and begins trying to talk him down. The actors have a likeable rapport, and it's easy enough to stay alert each time the camera assumes Nick's point-of-view for a stomach-lurching view of the street below.
The real problems come when the camera wanders away from the precipice. Writer Pablo F. Fenjves (best known as the ghostwriter of O.J. Simpson's If I Did It) has a reliably tin ear for dialogue and broadly-drawn characters, especially Ed Harris's fire-breathing cartoon. Similarly, there are gimmicky cutaways to Joey and Angie's slapstick break-in, complete with opportunities for her to strip down to her underwear while the two engage in inane sexual banter. Also wasted is the fine Anthony Mackie ( The Hurt Locker), as Nick's former partner.
The movie provides the paradox of many high-concept thrillers: At first Man on a Ledge seems like a film about the fear of heights; after the first half hour, the only real tension is worrying about how low it might sink.
Man on a Ledge
- Directed by Asger Leth
- Written by Pablo F. Fenjves
- Starring Sam Worthingon, Elizabeth Banks and Jamie Bell
- Classification: PG
- 2 stars