Grade: F

As disreputable as Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is as an artistic document, the infamous 1994 satire on the linkage between the cult of celebrity and the culture of violence in contemporary America can at least be admired for the director’s able deployment of his patented bag of film-school tricks to give the picture the hysterically jazzed-up surface so characteristic of his work. If you want to see how an imitative hack fares when he tries a variation on the same theme done in a similar vein, just check out John Herzfeld’s “15 Minutes.” In this case the shallow, superficial treatment of the subject–not unlike Stone’s–is joined with a visual style that’s flashy in a clumsy, rather than skillful, way, and the result is a picture that’s not only thoroughly disagreeable but slovenly made as well.

Herzfeld’s script attacks absurdly easy targets–tabloid television, the public’s appetite for sleaze and the media’s willingness to provide it, a corrupt legal system–and does so with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Its over-the-top narrative is set in motion by two eastern European thugs named Emil and Oleg (Karel Roden and Oleg Taktarov), who enter the U.S. to track down an old comrade and retrieve their share of loot from a robbery. Unfortunately, the confederate has spent their dough, and the freaked-out Emil promptly murders him and his wife; the slaughter, however, is not only witnessed by a beautiful illegal immigrant, Daphne Handlova (Vera Farmiga), but also taped by Oleg, a movie buff who’s pilfered a video camera on the way to the confrontation. To cover their tracks, the duo sets the apartment afire, leading to an investigation by celebrated NYPD homicide detective Eddie Flemming (Robert De Niro), who reluctantly links up with Jordy Warsaw (Edward Burns), a hot-shot arson specialist in the Fire Department, to track down the perpetrators. This necessitates a search for Daphne, to whom Burns will–needless to say–be attracted to provide some necessary romantic interest (we also cut away from time to time to see Flemming’s uneasy courtship of reporter Nicolette Karas, played by Melina Kanakaredes). Meanwhile, Emil decides to try an end run around the judicial system–and make a fortune in the process–by using Oleg’s video camera to record evidence of his feigned insanity, thus paving the way for an eventual acquittal and a major payoff in book sales and TV residuals. His scheme involves Robert Hawkins (Kelsey Grammer), the ratings-obsessed host of a tabloid TV series, who’s teamed up with pal Flemming to their mutual benefit in the past but, as events reveal, will stoop to anything to get a scoop.

It’s obvious that all this–and we’ve only skimmed the surface of the various plot complications Herzfeld has contrived–is intended as an attack on our modern fascination with short-lived celebrity (Flemming has embraced it, Hawkins feeds it, Emil and Oleg lust after it), the phenomenon Andy Warhol described in the title words. But the assault isn’t merely narrative; it’s also visual. Herzfeld employs careening camera compositions, splashy shows of light and shadow, fiery explosions, and grainy, hand-held inserts (from the perspective of Oleg’s omnipresent camera) to juice up the story with lots of surface energy. But the result, which Herzfeld obviously wants to be edgy and truthful, instead comes across as vacuous and overwrought. Its cheap sensationalism is particularly revolting: while posing as a clarion call against violence, the picture actually glorifies what it purports to abhor, pummeling the audience with repeated sequences of the grossest brutality; and it ultimately panders in the basest fashion to viewers’ blood-lust by making sure that, in the end, the guy they want to see get riddled with bullets is, and the fellow they hope to see slugged gets properly punched out. Within this context a Capraesque denouement, suggesting that a single little guy can triumph against all the malign forces arrayed against him (and society, too) is particularly offensive. Frank’s estate should sue.

It’s especially sad to find De Niro trapped in such sludge. Of late he’s stood out in his comic roles (“Analyze This,” “Meet The Parents”–let’s just forget the malodorous “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”), but his attempts at drama have fallen flat. Last year, in the dull, formulaic “Men of Honor,” he was reduced to trying to energize a stock character (the gruff sergeant) by twiddling endlessly with a corn-cob pipe. Here, he toys with cigars in an equally vain effort to invest another cardboard figure–the flamboyant, microphone-hungry cop (who nonetheless will take a rookie under his wing and show fright at the thought of proposing marriage to his girl)–with a smidgen of depth or realism. It’s a trick that doesn’t work here any more than it did before. Even so, De Niro remains watchable, which is more than can be said for Burns. From a purely technical perspective he’s a staggeringly inept actor: he’s handsome enough, to be sure, but he confuses posturing with screen presence, and he’s as amateurish as anybody on “Baywatch.” Grammer does the oily, serpentine bit well enough, but he’s no match even for Dustin Hoffman’s manipulative newsman in Costa-Gavras’ mediocre “Mad City” (1997), let alone Kirk Douglas’ shark-like journalist in Billy Wilder’s “The Big Carnival” (1951). Kanakaredes is attractive but hasn’t a great deal to do besides mope about. For some reason Charlize Theron, Kim Cattrall and David Alan Grier all do cameos in the picture, but their participation is sufficiently limited that it probably won’t darken their reputations too much. As for Roden and Taktarov, they leer and sneer with gusto, but in the final analysis all that the nastiness their characters perpetrate demonstrates is that there are people who should never be permitted near a camera. Unfortunately, on the evidence of this flick and his previous debacle (the 1996 mess “2 Days in the Valley”), John Herzfeld is one of them.