Basic Movie Law: In any movie centered around an unidentifiable mystery character, you need look no further than the name actor shunted into a tangential role where he or she hasn’t a lot more to do than stand around. This is just one of the many things to which Wayne Beach’s misbegotten Slow Burn falls victim. From its sub-Raymond Chandler dialogue to its unsuccessful Usual Suspects twists to its relentlessly murky cinematography, it’s a movie on the fast track to disaster. It’s easy to understand why Slow Burn sat on the shelf for four years, but harder to understand why it didn’t go straight to DVD or Showtime late night.
Despite a fairly impressive array of acting talent—Ray Liotta, Mekhi Pfifier, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taye Diggs, Bruce McGill and the likable presence of LL Cool J (or as he’s billed here, “James Todd Smith aka LL Cool J”)—there’s simply not much to recommend the film. Writer-director Beach has several nifty ideas going on, but none of them pan out and nothing the cast can do can save them.
The basic premise is OK. District Attorney and mayoral candidate Ford Cole (Liotta) has to interrupt his interview with a Brit journalist bearing the improbable name of Ty Trippin (Ejiofor) when his assistant D.A. (and girlfriend), Nora Timmer (Jolene Blalock, who seems to have some kind of minor cult following as part of TV’s Enterprise), is hauled in for killing a man. Nora’s claim is that the victim, Isaac Duperde (Mekhi Pfifer, TV’s ER), raped her, but a former police officer, Luther Pinks (LL Cool J), shows up and claims otherwise. Here director Beach quickly drops the ball. In no time, we’re made all too sure that Nora is lying. Then the film starts switching focus (often to the point of just losing track of Nora altogether) to a myriad of other matters and characters, all centering on the identity of the city’s unnamed, nearly mythical Moriarty-like underworld kingpin Danny Luden, an archvillain so mysterious that no one even knows what he looks like.
Beach keeps piling on convoluted contrivances in an effort to humbug the viewer with smoke and mirrors and dead-end developments, some of which are downright amusing. For example, D.A. Ford nearly caught Luden once, and from that near miss he was able to discern the damning information that the criminal mastermind likes lizards and is addicted to the TV show Friends! (Luden improbably has a complete set of episodes on home-recorded VHS tapes. The king of the underworld is too cheap to spring for the box-set DVDs?) Then there’s the peculiar business of giving Pinks the habit of remembering things by relating them to food odors, which does nothing but afford him the opportunity to sound like a comic knockoff of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Most of these smell memories relate to Nora. The night she met the ill-fated Isaac, “the city smelled like grapefruit.” Later on he notes that Nora “smelled like a tangerine waiting to be peeled.” Though my personal favorite is: “She walked in smelling like mashed potatoes, and every guy in the room wanted to be the gravy.” You don’t get writing like that every day!
There’s also a lot of palaver about crooked land deals, Nora passing for black, a transparent plot device about blowing up a housing project (where’s Ayn Rand when you need her?), some gunplay, a spot of arson, a belligerent police chief (Bruce McGill) and lots and lots of loose ends going all the way back to just why Ford Cole’s mayoral bid would attract a Brit journalist in the first place. Top it all off with no less than three silly plot twists and a sub-“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” spot of disillusionment for our dumber ‘n a carload of hammers would-be mayor, and you have Slow Burn. And you can keep it. Rated R for sexuality, violence and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke