I often wonder why Sam Worthington keeps landing starring roles. Sure, he’s got chiseled abs, a perfect chin, and enough charisma to get noticed on screen, but films like Terminator: Salvation (2009) and Clash of the Titans (2010) have shown him to be a rather limited thespian, by which I mean a terrible actor. Then comes a quiet little gem like Man on a Ledge, a tight, no-frills crime thriller that relies in large part on his performance, and I find myself convinced the guy should headline more Hollywood pictures, good ones at any rate.
As with most heist movies, the least you know coming into Man on a Ledge, the better. However, it’d be impossible for me to write this review without revealing at least three essential plot elements. One: Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, the titular man on a ledge, who, after escaping from jail, climbs out of a hotel window and asks for police negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks). Two: Nick is an ex-cop framed for stealing a diamond from venture capitalist David Englander (Ed Harris), and he plans to either clear his name in the next few hours or die trying. Three: meanwhile, his brother and would-be sister-in-law, Joey (Jamie Bell) and Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), break into a high-security vault, hoping to prove his innocence.
How these elements tie into each other is the stuff of spoilers, of course. Suffice it to say that it all hangs together in a convincing if unlikely manner. Granted, the true culprits who framed Nick prove easy to guess once you realise there are only four suspects, and the final act requires an evil mastermind to make one stupid move after the other in greedy desperation, but, dang it, don’t you find it refreshing to have a cinematic robbery in which getting caught doesn’t turn out a crucial part of the scheme?
Here’s another cliché Man on a Ledge wisely skips over: the convoluted master plan designed to dupe the audience instead of the mark. Steering clear of the excesses found in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven sequels, director Asger Leth keeps the heist grounded in a believable reality, generating suspense not from the characters smugly antagonising the baddy but from their having to improvise a way around simple obstacles like a newly installed heat sensor or a mistimed inspection.
It helps that our heroes are presented as ordinary people trying to right a wrong rather than career criminals cheating their way into the one percent. Joey and Angie have doubts, fears, and reasonable skill levels. The only thing about them that strains credibility is the latter’s omnipresent cleavage. As such, when the two start bickering in the middle of their operation (the characters, not the boobs), we get the sense of a smart but unsure couple instead of a compulsively unprofessional team of wiseacres. Plus, I like them, so suck it.
I also appreciate the interplay between Ms Mercer and fellow negotiator Jack Dougherty (Edward Burns), who, as these stories go, would rather handle the situation himself, seeing as her last jumper ended up leaping from the Brooklyn Bridge. Once again, Man on a Ledge sidesteps a tired trope by allowing its characters to talk things out and resolve their issues early on. Tension still exists between the two officers, largely so Lydia can better relate to Nick’s isolation, but their dynamic remains that of grown-ups who believe in law and order rather than schoolyard bullies with a badge.
If it seems I’m praising the film less for what it is than what it isn’t, well, you got me. In light of productions like The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008) and Inception (2010), it occurs to me the heist genre has gone through every permutation imaginable. This latest entry doesn’t bring anything new to the mix, but it does get rid of the clutter in a light, unassuming manner. As I mentioned, the whole thing hinges on Worthington’s performance, and he too takes a minimalist approach, connecting the various threads with a warm demeanour that lets us know Nick is worth saving. Sometimes less is more, you know?