Filmed in 2003 but kept on the shelf until now, Slow Burn smells a lot like a flimsy version of The Usual Suspects. While the plot of this so-so film noir includes plenty of bewildering twists, screenwriter-director Wayne Beach keeps things moving at a steady pace while managing to generate a reasonable amount of suspense every now and then.
The story focuses on committed District Attorney Ford Cole (Ray Liotta), whose potential mayoral career is on the line after his assistant D.A. and lover Nora Timmer (Jolene Blalock) becomes involved in the murder of Isaac Duperde (Mekhi Phifer), a local CD vendor who she claims attempted to rape her.
The case, however, grows more mysterious with the sudden appearance of Luther Pinks (LL Cool J), a close friend of the victim who assures Cole that Isaac and Nora were in fact lovers, and that she persuaded him to reveal the whereabouts of an elusive criminal gang lord. With time running out, it is now up to Cole to uncover the truth if he wants to save his career.
Slow Burn marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Wayne Beach, who spends most of the first act weaving a web of intrigue so as to create as much suspense as possible. Unfortunately, Beach overloads his plot (from a story by himself and Anthony Walton) with successive twists that are too confusing to follow, thus destroying the credibility of his characters. But then again, that doesn't really matter as the moment you leave the theater you'll probably be unable to remember who was doing what to whom – and why.
Beach clearly wants to say Something Important in Slow Burn, but the film's message turns out to be so shallow and cliched that he could have easily skipped the whole jumble of conspiracies and have one of his characters spit out said message in two sentences – if that many. Underdeveloped political and ethnic issues are tossed around – besides being metaphorically embedded into the bizarre behavior of Blalock's biethnic character, whose only other purpose in the film is to show it all off in several overlong nude scenes.
On the plus side, Wally Pfister's compelling cinematography and Kristina Boden's dynamic editing are two of the film's best assets. Though the effectiveness of their work is somewhat lessened by the weaknesses found in the main plot, they succeed in creating a dark and claustrophobic atmosphere.
The popularity of the ensemble cast is probably what kept Slow Burn from going straight to video, even though none of the film's big-name actors – except Ray Liotta – live up to their reputation. As usual, Liotta imbues his character with the right amount of charisma and strength, but he fails to receive the necessary support from the inadequate LL Cool J and Mekhi Phifer. Also in the cast is the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, but his character is too underdeveloped to make any sort of impact.
Slow Burn may not be a total waste of time or money, but it is inarguably a disappointment – mostly because of its subpar screenplay. Few people seemed to care as to why it took three years for this crime drama to hit the big screen, and frankly, even fewer will care about its fate after it disappears from view.
© Franck Tabouring.
Slow Burn (2007). Dir.: Wayne Beach. Scr.: Wayne Beach, from a story by Beach and Anthony Walton. Cast: Ray Liotta, LL Cool J, Mekhi Phifer, Jolene Blalock, Chiwetel Ejiofor.