When you're dealing with a first-time director whose only other Hollywood credits are for writing a really lame pair of Wesley Snipes movies, you walk in skeptical yet hopeful, perhaps even actively rooting for the filmmaker to make a leap forward with his directorial debut. Well, Wayne Beach pulled it off. The good news is that Slow Burn is indeed a better film than both Murder at 1600 and The Art of War. The bad news is that it's only marginally better than those flicks, and they both stunk.
A late-arriving and barely warmed-up retread of The Usual Suspects, Slow Burn is eleven flavors of cliche, convention and stereotype in one 93-minute chore of a movie. If this cable-level yawner of a flick has even one remotely new or unique idea, I'm guessing it must be buried in the end credits somewhere. (I left before they were over.) To his credit, Mr. Beach has cobbled together a pretty solid ensemble for a movie of this caliber, and there are just enough good lines and interesting scenes to fill a two-minute theatrical trailer ... but ultimately Slow Burn is as tiresome as it is beholden to a dozen (much better) crime stories.
Ray Liotta plays a hotshot district attorney who is having one rotten evening: One of his subordinates has just been (allegedly) raped, the local crime boss is gearing up to make some trouble, a pushy reporter is trying to land a story, and a mysterious nobody just walked into the police station spouting all kinds of crazy stories. Although all of Slow Burn technically takes place in one night, that's not counting the myriad and eventually irritating series of Rashomon-style flashbacks that deliver all sorts of conflicting back-stories. It's not just that the subplots are generic and entirely predictable ... they're also jam-freakin'-packed with "hard-boiled" chit-chat that goes on and on. (I can't remember the last 90-minute movie that needed four different narrators.)
Shamelessly borrowing from Bryan Singer's neo-noir classic, Beach rests on his fractured story framework until the thing creaks under the weight, but there is one somewhat interesting idea buried beneath the tedium: The idea that the lady D.A. is a white woman pretending to be black (or perhaps the other way around) gives the racially diverse cast something to jaw about here and there -- but the idea is never (ahem) fleshed out in adequate fashion. It's as if Spike Lee just got done watching The Usual Suspects, basically, or perhaps more appropriately, a first-time director who really likes Spike Lee. The screenplay has so many oft-repeated noir-style quips, statements and rejoinders that the movie begins to feel almost like a parody.
As is often the case, lead actor Ray Liotta gives a better performance that the material actually deserves. Some might say that Liotta could play a role like this in his sleep. I say he just did. Enterprise hottie Jolene Blalock plays the assistant D.A. and alleged rape victim; she comes off like a cross between Angelina Jolie and Hilary Swank -- in both looks and talent. Reliable character actors like Mekhi Phifer, Bruce McGill, Taye Diggs and Chiwetel Ejiofor do the best they can with their under-written or over-cooked roles. And then there's LL Cool J (apparently, after more than a dozen movies, now using his real name for some reason), who sidles through the movie doling out some of the goofiest dialogue in years. It's a bit too silly to get into, but his character has a thing for food-related analogies, which leads to lines like "She walked in smelling like mashed potatoes, and every guy in the room wanted to be the gravy." I'm paraphrasing here, but LL also makes reference to pot roast, grapefruit and tangerines over the course of the movie, and each line is sillier than the last.
Slow Burn is precisely like one of those vague and listless crime thrillers you see littering the shelves of Blockbuster. ("Hey, Ray Liotta, LL Cool J and that chick from Enterprise. How come I've never heard of this one?") Why Lionsgate is putting the thing out on 1,700 screens is anybody's guess -- but my guess has something to do with the phrase "contractual obligations." Nothing against Ray Liotta, but he's hardly a box office draw all by himself -- and there's nothing else to be found in Slow Burn that'd cause a big logjam at your local box office. Late at night on a boring Tuesday if the thing happens to be just starting on HBO ... sure, maybe. But as a fairly pricey multiplex option? Not even close.