It's an arresting image, Sam Worthington out on that 40th-story ledge. He's a fairly tough-looking guy, after all, and we know him best as the tooth-gritting blockbuster hero of Avatar and Clash of the Titans, so it's head-spinning to see the man's beefy figure as a speck hovering so precariously close to New York's infinite sky.
The camera swirls around Worthington's disgraced former cop Nick Cassidy, inching out past that thin strip of architecture, then back in. What if he trips, or jumps? For a while, anything seems possible, and it's both exhilarating and terrifying.
Then the wool comes off, and it's clear that director Asger Leth and screenwriter Pablo Fenjves have ambitions considerably less grand than their protagonist's perch. Cassidy's ledge game -- with all the studio-unfriendly moral ambiguities it entails -- is just a con, a photo op for the crowds, and Nick's apparent desire to exit the material world is a front. What he truly, passionately wants to do is steal some jewelry.
As Nick, from way up high, barks instructions into a microphone, we watch a diamond heist play out inside a metallic gray high-security complex. Well, "high-security": This is the sort of Hollywood vault designed for easy criminal access, where everything is Fort Knox-level secure except the air vents, and where the entire computer system comes undone with the snipping of a single red wire.
Nick's brother (Jamie Bell) and his barely dressed girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) are pulling the heist on his nemesis, a snarly real-estate mogul (Ed Harris, enjoying himself) who framed Nick into a life sentence he's currently on the run from. But just in case Nick's justified revenge plot has created the illusion of importance, Bell and Rodriguez re-affirm the plan's frivolity by bickering and squabbling about their relationship the entire time.
Elizabeth Banks, projecting a sort of exasperated allure as Nick's negotiator, brings a level of gravity to the situation not felt by anyone else, including Nick. Her character's backstory -- the last guy she tried to talk off a bridge ignored her and jumped into the great beyond -- is intriguingly messy, but since we know far earlier than we should that Nick's not planning anything life-threatening, this detail is wasted. With miscues like this, the film aims for Hitchcock and gets a bit turned around; we're The Audience That Knew Too Much.
Director Leth comes from an esteemed filmmaking family -- his father is Jorgen Leth, the renowned experimentalist best known for his 1967 short The Perfect Human. And he knows his way around a scene, as evidenced by the film's dizzying ledge work. All this helps explain why the film's descent into generic silliness feels more painful than it should for a late-January thriller.
That's not to say Man on a Ledge is completely bereft of entertainment value or invention. It's always fun to see TV reporters depicted as attention-crazed sociopaths, and Kyra Sedgwick fits that bill nicely. Harris, too, is great fun in a tailored suit and an I-am-the-1-percent smirk. And there's an endearing quality to Nick's brashness, the way he uses his platform to captivate a growing crowd of admirers. Maybe that's the grandest way to go: proclaiming your existence to the heavens by bellowing, "I am an innocent man!"
For those who remember Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth, an eerie, economical 2003 thriller set entirely in and around Colin Farrell's public glass prison, it's hard not to wonder what Man on a Ledge could have been with just a little more restraint. Both films place men in extraordinary predicaments under the public eye, but Phone Booth demonstrated faith in the power of both claustrophobia and the slow reveal. The twitchy Ledge can't wait to open up its scope, but it loses its footing in the process -- and Nick didn't start with too much room to stand. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.