- - Thursday, January 26, 2012

As a heist movie, “Man on a Ledge” is a bit of a throwback. It’s intensely plotted, gritty, occasionally surprising and sparing in its use of elements extraneous to the story. Lately, espionage and crime movies are turning their backs on the procedural style as dull and plodding. The result is star-driven dreck like “Tower Heist” or glossy, stylized, incomprehensible films like “Haywire.”

By contrast, “Man on a Ledge” is unapologetically a B-movie. The most recognizable face is probably that of Ed Harris as a nefarious real estate speculator who is the target of an elaborate plot. Moviegoers have seen Sam Worthington in “Avatar,” of course, but his most memorable on-screen moments were spent in the guise of a blue alien. The rest of the cast is filled out by capable character actors who do a good job of letting the material guide the movie.

Mr. Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, a disgraced former New York police officer who is in prison for his role in a theft of a valuable diamond - a crime in which the stolen object was never recovered. Nick escapes in dramatic fashion when given a brief furlough to attend the funeral of his father. He turns up, as the title suggests, on the ledge of a midtown Manhattan hotel, threatening to jump. What follows is a bit of movie cliche: A large crowd gathers on the streets below; the police put up cordons; the hostage negotiation team is summoned.

The trick here is that Nick isn’t desperate or suicidal. He’s using his platform as an observation post to direct a daring robbery targeting David Englander (Mr. Harris), the previous owner of the diamond Nick was convicted of stealing. He’s joined by his brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), who take advantage of the distraction to steal into Englander’s building. Complicating matters is the presence of Nick’s enemies on the police force - men who used him as a pawn and sacrificed him to prison in order to keep their privileged spots as Englander’s bagmen.

Nick requests his hostage negotiator by name. Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) combines a hard-boiled-cop facade with an inner empathy for the people she typically is asked to deal with. While she recognizes pretty early on that Nick isn’t a suicide, she doesn’t believe his claims of innocence and isn’t sure what part she plays in his scheme.

“Man on a Ledge” dials into a paranoid, disgruntled mood that recalls 1970s New York crime movies like “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and “Dog Day Afternoon” (which is directly alluded to at several points). It’s particularly effective at calling out Englander, who uses ill-gotten gains to buy influence and police protection, as the worst kind of predator.

“Man on a Ledge” provides a target-rich environment for audiences fed up with elites and institutions. More to the point, it’s a tight, spare and relatively plausible thriller that provides enough twists and turns to keep the audience engaged until the credits roll.

★★★

TITLE: “Man on a Ledge”

CREDITS: Directed by Asger Leth, written by Pablo F. Fenjves

RATING: PG-13 for language and violence

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS