The most interesting thing about Man on a Ledge is that it’s the feature directorial debut of Asger Leth, son of Jorgen Leth. If you’ve ever seen Lars Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, Jorgen Leth is the director Von Trier challenges to remake his acclaimed short The Perfect Human four times while maintaining his artistic voice and integrity under different sets of circumstances, hoping to compel him into making something even more raw, pure, and true.
Man on a Ledge, however, has little to do with art and is the purest kind of Hollywood box office commerce. That said, until the last ten minutes or so when it throws away even the simplest kind of character logic and devolves into pure Hollywood tripe, it’s a remarkably solid heist/thriller. Sam Worthington is passable as ex-cop Nick Cassidy, except perhaps for his periodic failings at playing the reality of standing on a ledge a dozen stories off of the ground. There are times where he’s so casual about the height that it threatens the reality of his circumstances and the narrative.
Luckily, he’s supported by bevy of actors whose talent far outshines the material. Cassidy has been in prison for allegedly stealing a diamond owned by rich hotel owner David Englander (Ed Harris), but maintains his innocence and stages a scenario to prove it. Elizabeth Banks plays a suicide negotiator tasked with talking him down, and her commitment to the role in even the smallest of details is pitch-perfect. Jamie Bell plays Nick’s brother and Anthony Mackie his ex-partner, and neither of these guys is capable of playing a moment as anything other than perfectly true. Bell in particular shines, and makes entire sequences work that otherwise would likely crack and fall apart. Titus Welliver, familiar to television fans from his work on Deadwood, Lost, Sons of Anarchy, and The Good Wife to name just a few, also shines; and, of course, Ed Harris is aces and makes a character who has only a few scenes and is written as little more than a cliche into someone very real and suitably hateful. Even Ed Burns fares better than usual, though he gets most of the good lines and probably benefits here the way Mark Wahlberg did in The Departed.
The script is alternately sharp and clever in places while lazy and too-clever in others. Luckily, Leth demonstrates a professionalism and deftness of touch with the material, as well as an ability to work exceedingly well with his actors. He’s able to wring the most out of the best of the writing, and scrape together or gloss over what doesn’t work. Still, you have to let the last five or so minutes float over you or its going to leave a bad taste in your mouth as you leave the theatre, again the result of a writer trying to be too clever by half. I also found the performance of Genesis Rodriguez to be pretty cloying and annoying. She certainly has a fair amount of emotional depth, but the abrasive character would have been better-served by downplaying some of the abrasiveness in places.
It’s Leth’s sharp directing and the supporting performances that make this one work enough of the time that you likely won’t resent spending an hour and forty-five minutes with it. And it’s certainly better than the usual January dumping-ground fare. There really doesn’t need to be anything more said about the Hollywood heist/thriller plot, as it’s inconsequential to your enjoyment of the movie, and the modest surprises are better left as surprises.