Ruben Fleischer became a director to watch with 2009’s frenetic Zombieland, which blended zany humour with the undead-related gore more typical of the genre we know and love. No great surprise, then, that his next flick should be another fast-paced buddy comedy: 30 Minutes Or Less.
Fleischer’s latest effort shares a number of characteristics with his first movie – the same lead (Jesse Eisenberg), quick-fire gags, and a touch of peril to keep our nerves frayed. This time, though, we swap survival horror for… well, just survival, with a side serving of pizza and bombs.
Our unlikely hero is Nick, a pizza delivery guy whose dismal life is about to get far, far worse. Eight years after graduation, he’s still in a dead-end job working for a boss he loathes and pining after the girl he loves, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria). Kate happens to be the twin sister of his best friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), who shares all Nick’s slacker tastes in heist films, booze and fast-food, but somehow manages to combine all this with a teaching job and the trappings of adulthood.
When Chet learns of Nick’s graduation-night romp with his sister, the pair break their friendship spectacularly with a ludicrous fight any ten-year-old could be proud of. This is unfortunate for Nick, as he’s about to find himself in a situation where a trusted pal – even one as daft as Chet – could be awfully useful.
Dwayne (Danny McBride) and his only friend Travis (Nick Swardson) are basically Nick and Chet’s evil twins. A sad man holed up with his hated father, The Major (a funny and underused Fred Ward) Dwayne’s constantly plotting his escape. The only way to fund his dream of a tanning salon-cum-brothel (aim high, kids!) is to bump off his domineering, wealthy dad and pocket the inheritance. When Dwayne’s favourite lapdancer, Juicy (Bianca Kajlich), suggests a hitman she knows for the job, all Dwayne and henchman Travis need to do is find the money for said assassin.
What they badly need is a stooge to commit a bank robbery for them, someone with a getaway car, who they can lure into their grasp under false pretences. Someone just like a certain pizza delivery guy, in fact. The luckless Nick is soon at their mercy. Strapped to a remote-controlled bomb vest, he has just ten hours to commit a bank robbery and get Dwayne his $100,000. He knows that only Chet could be stupid enough to help him try. Can the two friends make up, get the cash, and save Nick from a fiery end?
It’s a rare thing these days when an action movie doesn’t outstay its welcome, but 30 Minutes Or Less runs at such breakneck speed that it practically lives up to Nick’s delivery promise. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps the main plot relatively tight and snappy, but Michael Diliberti’s screenplay does attempt to pack in a few extra twists that simply don’t have time to work effectively. Nick and Kate’s relationship drama ultimately exists only as a plot device and lumbers Vadsaria with a dull and underwritten role. Shame, as the scene where a frantic Nick finally declares his feelings is rather lovely, and almost seems to belong in a different film.
Speaking of things that belong in a different film, the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Nick marks 30 Minutes Or Less out as a curiosity. The Oscar-nominated star of The Social Network is certainly on very different turf here, but he’s great in the role, showing off impeccable comic timing while bringing deeper emotion to the film’s heavier moments. However, his presence highlights the reason why actors with proper dramatic chops aren’t usually cast in broad comedies of this variety.
The scene where he’s held captive by a masked Dwayne and Travis as they demonstrate their explosive skills on a teddy bear is meant to be riotously funny, but Nick’s hyperventilating panic is scarily real, making it pretty difficult to laugh. The comic chemistry between Eisenberg, McBride and Swardson proves more effective when the baddies are at a distance and Nick’s free to revert to his usual wisecracking self over the phone, something that Eisenberg does with aplomb.
Eisenberg and Ansari work extremely well together throughout, the former’s deadpan delivery blending well with his stand-up co-star’s shrill – and often hilarious – outbursts. Ansari’s given many of the movie’s best lines, and makes the most of them; his finest hour’s a brilliantly random, rambling monologue as he muses on whether or not to help Nick. What of chief villain McBride, still in the doghouse for many after Your Highness?
Admittedly, I’m an unreliable witness, as he’s got a lifetime pass from me for his appearance in 2007’s Hot Rod, but he’s pretty good value here, and given nice, understated comic support by Swardson. The two even manage to build a mildly touching buddy rapport by the film’s end, highlighting the amusing parallels between the opposing pairs at the plot’s centre. Michael Peña is also great fun as the lisping hitman hired to do Dwayne’s dirty work.
30 Minutes Or Less works best when it opts for witty gags or silly, broad slapstick. The opening sequence, where Nick performs all manner of pizza-droppingly scary tricks as he speeds through town in his beloved Mustang, is inspired, while the central bank robbery works well, despite being oddly brief. Extra points are awarded for excellent allusions to various action classics, from Die Hard to Point Break, plus some great musical references, because The Heat Is On never fails. Where the film misfires is in its occasional lapses into crudity for crudity’s sake.
The utterly unnecessary topless sequence and a few dumb, unfunny racist and sexist barbs lower the bar, souring an otherwise fun and clever screenplay. It’s all the more annoying given that the script frequently does rise to the challenge of combining F-bomb-strewn outbursts with genuine wit. Mention must be made of the bizarrely rushed ending that appears to be setting up a highly unlikely sequel, although that could in itself be a reference to the dafter kind of ‘80s action franchises clearly beloved of the film’s writers.
Ultimately, 30 Minutes Or Less doesn’t quite have classic potential. The shifts in tone around its darker plot elements are problematic (echoes of a real-life tragedy involving a pizza delivery driver killed by a bomb in similar circumstances caused controversy on its US release) while a few lazy jokes detract from some genuinely great scenes. However, it’s still an oddly likeable and consistently entertaining flick, providing Eisenberg with a welcome chance to excel at comedy, and giving Ansari a platform for more lead roles.
Job done in only 83 minutes… and no, you’re not getting your money back.
The extras for the DVD release are fairly standard, amounting to a fun but brief making-of feature (Blowing Up With The Cast And Crew Of 30 Minutes Or Less) and a set of deleted scenes and inessential outtakes.
You can rent or buy 30 Minutes Or Less at Blockbuster.co.uk.