Someone’s been watching “The Usual Suspects” too many times, and his name is Wayne Beach, the writer-director of this sad, silly imitation of Bryan Singer’s mind-bending 1995 puzzle movie. The title is half-right: the picture moves at a glacial pace (which allows all its absurdities to stand out in clear relief), but it generates no heat.
The setting is an unnamed city where D.A. Ford Cole (Ray Liotta) is running for mayor on a clean-up-the-city platform. In the course of a late-night interview with a big-time reporter named Ty Trippin (Chiwetel Ejiofor), during which it comes out that he’s aiming to bring down the area’s mysterious crime lord, a never-seen fellow named Danny (easier to pronounce than Keyser Soze, but much less interesting), Cole receives an emergency message: his high-profile assistant Nora Timmer (Jolene Blalock) has been picked up for shooting a record-store clerk named Isaac Duperde (Mekhi Phifer), who she claims was trying to rape her. As we learn, Cole and Nora are lovers, and he prods her for information he can use to clear her (and save his name in the process), but her story becomes less and less credible, as alternative accounts are given by Luther Pink (LL Cool J, billed here as James Todd Smith), a shadowy character who was Isaac’s pal, and by Jeffrey Sykes (Taye Diggs), a guy whom Nora unaccountably tried to get released from jail. As if all this weren’t bad enough, Cole is bedeviled by the police chief (Bruce McGill), who thinks the D.A. is undermining his department. And did I mention that there’s a major gas leak near a public housing project that the city’s big real estate developers are salivating to tear down—a potential disaster that requires the entire area to be evacuated?
The complexity of all this is hysterical, but Beach’s treatment of is sluggish. Most of what he offers are long-winded stretches of dialogue which—like those in “Suspects”—are supposed are offer nuggets of information that one clever enough to recognize them among all the lies can use to figure out what the master plot behind everything is. But “Slow Burn” really doesn’t play fair with the audience, and all the data are presented in such a pedestrian way that it’s hard to concentrate long enough to separate the wheat from the chaff; and the supposedly humorous asides (like those involving a police desk sergeant) fall completely flat.
Beach has an interesting cast at his disposal, but he uses them badly; the performances are either over-the-top (Liotta, McGill) or stilted and bland (Blalock, Phifer) throughout, though as usual Ejiofor comes across better than most. As for Smith, his smugness gets old very fast. Even technically the picture is mediocre: everything looks too small-scaled and cramped (the few “riot” scenes are ludicrously undersized), and even the usually reliable Wally Pfister’s cinematography is below his customary standard.
Everything in “Slow Burn” is inane, but Beach’s worst habit is to have Luther refer to odors at the drop of a hat. At different points in his monologues, he says that Nora variously smelled like a tangerine, a mango and—most ridiculous of all—mashed potatoes! If this is a plot to increase concession sales, it doesn’t work. And of course, the movie smells like something else entirely.