April 19, 2007

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Slow Burn (R)
Ray Liotta all but has a full-on, red-faced, massive coronary trying to wrap his brain around the riddle bundled in a mystery about his assistant district attorney’s race tied up in a twisty plot of corruption and murder in Slow Burn.

You know, it occurs to me that movies about cops and district attorneys and corruption really have no chance. How can 90 minutes of screen time compete with a season of The Wire, that brilliant lament about justice frustrated and thievery both petty and breathtakingly grand? How can some Johnny-come-lately actor playing a district attorney compete with the deadly articulate Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) of Law & Order? We are in a golden age of television, especially for nuanced stories of law enforcement and the ways its powers can be abused (The Shield). Why do movies even try to compete?

Slow Burn, apparently, decided not to and instead goes for the absurd. Meet Nora (Jolene Blalock). Nora is an assistant district attorney. Nora is also white — white like a fluffy white lamb from a children’s storybook, white like vanilla soy milk, white like Marcia Brady. And yet somehow — mostly by wearing cornrows and collecting African art — she’s convinced her boss/lover Ford Cole (Liotta) and everyone around them that she is really a light-skinned African American. This entire plot point has nothing to do, ultimately, with the story of corruption but the movie makes a big honking deal of it. It is the initially intriguing but ultimately meaningless centerpiece of the entire character of Nora — which is a little like throwing a big hot pink statue in the middle of the room in hopes that nobody will notice you haven’t bothered to paint the walls or build a roof.

Ford, who wants to run for mayor, is called to the scene of a crime where he learns that Nora, his A.D.A., has just shot a man. Back at the station, she tells him that she was raped and killed the man before he got away. But then a man named Luther Pinks (LL Cool Jay a.k.a. James Todd Smith) saunters into the station and tells Ford that the death of Isaac (Mekhi Phifer) was murder. Nora met him months before, Luther says, and, far from rape, they were lovers. Nora, a top prosecutor of gang crimes, was also not just Isaac’s girlfriend, she was working him for some favor, Pinks said. Nora admits that she tried to get Isaac to be a witness against a powerful gangster; Pinks says she was trying to get Isaac to do something more illicit.

Ford only has until dawn to keep the police at bay and learn the truth about Nora and the shooting before his star prosecutor (and bed-buddy) winds up behind bars. How does Ford try to ferret out the truth?

Well, mostly, he goes back and forth between the interview room where Pinks is and the interview room where Nora is, getting angrier and more red-faced each time. At a certain point, I started to get concerned for Ford. Maybe some water? An aspirin? A few moments of calming meditation? Seriously, man, just because you’re in police station, don’t depend on them being able to jump start your heart after your coronary.

The ultimately pointless race question is only one of several plot threads that twist aimlessly in the wind of this movie’s half-baked dialogue and overheated performances. Slow Burn also uses unreliable narrators to create suspense and mystery, a device that Usual Suspects more or less ruined for everyone, forever (or at least until the grandchildren of everyone my age die out). What we’re left with is a very clunky, very hastily assembled corruption plot that (because it bears enough similarities to a past season of The Wire to call it to mind) really suffers when you consider how elementary its construction is compared to that of better stories of guys on both sides of the law you can see elsewhere. Flat performances (only Smith really shows a hint of being interested in bringing anything at all to his role) and unimaginative everything else (I realize you can’t rewind in the theater but that’s no excuse for all the repetitive flashbacks) help ensure that Slow Burn never heats up. D+

Rated R for sexuality, violence and language. Directed by Wayne Beach and written by Beach and Anthony Walton, Slow Burn is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.