It sounds like a prompt in a writing exercise: a man steps through the window and out onto the ledge outside the twenty-second floor of a New York City hotel and looks down. Who is this man and how did he get here? It's more than possible to extract some excitement from this scenario, but Man on a Ledge is a film that poses all of these questions without having any particularly compelling answers.
The man is Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington). He's a former cop, recently escaped from prison, and he's on the ledge because from there, somehow, he hopes he'll be able to prove his innocence in the crime he was jailed for. A negotiator named Dougherty (Ed Burns) is sent to talk to him, but Nick requests a different negotiator named Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), who's still beating herself up over a recent, unsuccessful attempt to talk someone down. Meanwhile, the city's eyes turn toward the standoff, including the eyes of Nick's former partner, Mike Ackerman (Anthony Mackie), and rich businessman David Englander (Ed Harris), who owns the building Nick is standing on.
Director Asger Leth scores some points by doing things the old-fashioned way, sticking Worthington over twenty stories up the side of a building rather than fake it with sets and computer graphics. At the same time, this is a real "bare minimum" situation; Leth never does anything to enhance or increase the danger and vertigo automatically provided by the the setting. Instead, he and writer Pablo F. Fenjves bend over backwards artificially trying to enhance the tension by squeezing every minute of screen time they possibly can out of the film's secrets, namely the crime Nick's been jailed for, the specific details of what his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey's girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are up to on the building across the street, and how it all ties to Englander and his reputation as one of the city's wealthiest and most prolific businessmen.
Once Joey and Angie are introduced, the film splits its time between their thread and Nick's thread, where Lydia is still trying to talk him back inside. In doing so, however, the script paints itself into a corner twice over, with Joey's story plodding along waiting to be revealed, while Lydia asks questions the audience either already knows the answers to or are just as secret as whatever Joey is up to. Nick has magically thought everything out in advance, but the film would be better trimming Joey's underwhelming stealth tactics (stolen from or trumped by any number of better movies, including last month's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) and agonizing comic relief (he's sort of dumb! his girlfriend is sassy and Latino!) and allowing Lydia to be as smart or smarter than Nick. Unless she can do or deduce things that Nick isn't prepared for, she doesn't pose any threat to him. A battle of wits would improve both characters, forcing Nick to think on his feet and Lydia out of her shell.
Worthington is passable as the title character, and he's surrounded by Banks, Bell, Mackie, William Sadler, and Gone Baby Gone's Titus Welliver and Harris, all strong and capable performers, none of whom do anything to embarrass themselves with their efforts here. But Fenjives and Leth don't have any idea who any of these people are, only why, and as such, Man on a Ledge never evolves from a story prompt into anything resembling an actual story.
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