Man on a Ledge is kind of a dumb idea for a movie. The fact that it works is nothing short of a miracle. The narrative debut of documentarian Asger Leth (Ghosts of Cité Soleil) is the kind of high-concept-but-not-really thriller we used to see more of in the 1990s, when films like The Negotiator could wrangle themselves an A-List cast. Savvy viewers will see every “twist” coming a mile off, but savvy viewers also love cinema enough to enjoy a popcorn flick when it’s made in the spirit of good old-fashioned fun. Man on a Ledge is nothing to bitch about. It’s actually pretty damned entertaining.
Our story begins when Nick Cassidy climbs out onto the ledge of a New York sky rise, over twenty stories above the ground. It’s not long before somebody looks up (they must be tourists) and sees someone who looks suspiciously like Avatar’s Sam Worthington looming over them, ready to jump. A crowd forms, a hostage negotiator played by Elizabeth Banks is called to talk him down, and a mystery forms. What the hell is he doing out there? If you’ve seen the trailer you already know, so you can afford to come into the theater a few minutes late if you really have to.
Yes, Man on a Ledge suffers from what I call “Red Eye Syndrome.” If you recall Wes Craven’s somewhat similar high concept thriller, you remember that it’s one of those movies with a twist at the end of the first act, which plays great on the page but is hell on marketing departments. You can’t sell Red Eye without giving away that Cillian Murphy is a kidnapper, and you can’t sell Man on a Ledge without revealing that Worthington’s showboating is all just a diversion for a heist going on across the street. So the first third of the movie makes you feel like you’re spinning your wheels waiting for Man on a Ledge to catch up. Once it does, it’s a deft little thriller with fun performances and just enough suspense to keep you thoroughly entertained for 102 minutes.
What Man on a Ledge has in its favor is a spirit of sheer entertainment. The promise that someone will fall to their death provides a tidy counterpoint to the spirited flirtations of Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez, who play the prepared but inexperienced thieves trying to steal a giant diamond while Worthington tosses dollar bills into the cheering throng below. Ed Harris also seems to enjoy his Lex Luthor-ish villain, tossing expensive trinkets across the room in frustration and looming over scale models of his business ventures like they were the Bottled City of Kandor. Despite the stakes, everyone seems to be having a good time on one level or another. The balance between genuine threat and B-Movie silliness is just about right, and that had a great affect on the audience, who at my screening laughed and cheered along with every joke and plot twist, telegraphed though they were. I’m a little more jaded than that, but I was able to enjoy a good chuckle at the cast’s strong chemistry and some of the goofier turns of events.
The final “Gotcha” moment lands with a mighty thud to aficionados of this kind of material, and feels like a plot hole disguised as a sealant, calling unnecessary attention to the utter silliness of the concept. Man on a Ledge features a heist that’s so elaborately conceived that you wonder, after the credits at least, why anyone involved isn’t doing something more substantial with their lives. Surely they belong in a government think tank more than a dive bar in Brooklyn, or at least the kind of Hollywood production house that comes up with films like Man on a Ledge, and makes them fun despite their absurdity.