Filmed four years ago Slow Burn’s uses shades of The Usual Suspects a film it tries way too hard to emulate and ends up being convoluted and often confusing. Ray Liotta plays Ford Cole an ambitious District Attorney of an unnamed American metropolis who is having an affair with Nora Timmer (Jolene Blalock) his bi-racial assistant D.A. When she kills a man (Mekhi Phifer) she claims raped her the matter turns out to be anything but open-and-shut much to Cole’s personal and political chagrin. It turns out that Nora and the dead man were also having an affair. Is Nora the woman that Cole thinks she is? Hmm maybe not. Then there’s Luther Pinks (LL Cool J) who claims to be a friend of Isaac’s and whose version of the story is very different than Nora’s. The beleaguered Cole must ascertain who’s telling the truth and who’s not. He obviously hasn’t seen enough movies like this one because it’s a forgone conclusion that most everyone’s lying. Despite its many flaws Slow Burn is made watchable thanks to its cast most of whom transcend the tricky material. Like Michael Douglas Liotta (also the film’s co-executive producer) is one of those actors we love to watch losing it. He has ample opportunity to do so here. If you can buy Blalock as a femme fatale then it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that her character is bi-racial. She’s simply not that strong an actress to pull off the constant sleight-of-hand the character demands. LL Cool J who seems to be making a career out of movies that spend most of their time on the shelf (Mindhunters and Edison Force anyone?) plays it cool which is about all his role affords. Taye Diggs pops up briefly as a prison informant while Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a magazine reporter dogging Cole’s campaign. There are nice bits by Guy Torry as Cole’s right-hand man on the police force who’s (understandably) baffled throughout and by veteran Joe Grifasi as a desk sergeant with too much time on his hands. Best of all is the ever-reliable Bruce McGill as the chief of police and no fan of Cole’s. It’s the sort of hard-boiled role that McGill (also recently seen in The Lookout) can--and has--played with ease many times before but McGill plays it with scene-stealing aplomb. As first-timer director/screenwriter Wayne Beach lobs twists and turns left and right with Slow Burn but he isn’t able to maintain consistency or a semblance of credibility. To Beach’s credit there are some intense moments and a couple of sardonic laughs in Slow Burn. It isn’t nearly as bad as its lengthy stint on the shelf might indicate but it’s nothing special either. Beach’s previous screenwriting credits include the Wesley Snipes vehicles Murder at 1600 and The Art of War neither of which were particularly distinguished but passed the time relatively painlessly anyway. Add Slow Burn to the list. There’s nice cinematography from two-time Oscar nominee Wally Pfister (Batman Begins The Prestige– both of which he made after this film). It is appropriately gritty and stylish in the proper film noir tradition. So Slow Burn does have a few things going for it save for the Friday the 13th release date. As if it weren’t jinxed enough already.
The plot starts off exciting enough: a motley group steals a rare gem but two of the thieves doublecross bad guy Patrick (Sean Bean) and take off with the precious stone. Jumping ahead 10 years we meet Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) a prominent New York psychiatrist with a loving wife (Famke Janssen) and an adorable 8-year-old daughter (Skye McCole Bartusiak). Life is good until Nathan is summoned by a colleague (Oliver Platt) to examine a disturbed young woman Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy). The next day he discovers the ruthless Patrick has kidnapped his daughter. The only way to get her back is to extract a six-digit number locked away in Elisabeth's troubled mind a number leading to the gem. But then the film lapses into the predictable: Nathan races to save his daughter and try to solve the puzzle of the traumatic event which sent Elisabeth off into la-la land.
Douglas certainly has had plenty of moments to shine in his career but this isn't one of them. He plays it pretty straight and boring leaving nothing to let him stretch his acting abilities. Following along the same lines Bean another fine actor who rarely gets to break out of the bad guy role plays a cookie-cutter villain with nothing more than his menacing looks and voice to keep him going. Murphy's performance as the complex Elisabeth has been talked about as Oscar bait-but we are not sure why. What starts off as an intriguing portrayal of yet another mentally disturbed character--her other being her role in Girl Interrupted which was much more interesting--dissolves into a lost-little-girl syndrome. Actually the two characters that stand out are Bartusiak as the spunky daughter and Jennifer Esposito (Summer of Sam) as a detective hot on the jewel thieves' trail.
Word starts off with such a bang you immediately get involved and think it may actually be a good movie. Director Gary Felder takes us right into Conrad's happy world and then turns it upside down when Conrad realizes what he must do to get his daughter back. It may be hard to believe Patrick after spending the last 10 years in jail would know that Elisabeth holds the key to finding the gem but the cat-and-mouse game Elisabeth plays with Dr. Conrad is fascinating. This plot device could have been taken into so many different directions especially since Douglas and Murphy have a very interesting rapport. Even the subplot involving the little girl and her attempts to escape while her mother with a broken leg tries desperately to find her could have been taken further. But the film goes ahead and ends predictably and we're left saying how much better we could have made it.
Marvin Mange (Schneider) works in the evidence room of a small town police station. He has always wanted to become a full-fledged police officer and follow in his father's footsteps only he's too wimpy to pass the physical endurance test. Nothing is looking good for this asthmatic loser until his car goes careening off a cliff. Marvin survives thanks to the cabin-bound Dr. Wilder (Michael Caton) who after having cracked the genetic code patches him back together with various animal organs. With no memory of what has happened to him Marvin goes about his daily life until strange things start to happen. He develops abnormally acute senses and after sniffing out a heroin-filled balloon located in a drug smuggler's butt he becomes a local hero and--best of all--a real cop. His antics get the attention of Rianna (Colleen Haskell) a volunteer at a local animal shelter. A hardcore vegetarian Rianna finds Marvin's ability to catch a Frisbee with his mouth and regurgitate a worm for a motherless baby turkey endearing. But Marvin is quickly losing his battle with his animal self and keeping up appearances becomes increasingly difficult.
It is very difficult not to sympathize with Schneider's character in this film. With his big droopy eyes you almost get the impression that even Schneider feels sorry for Marvin. And even though his lines are not inherently funny and the delivery is slightly blasé his stunts are really rather amusing. He actually looks like a cheetah when he runs and he licks his leg with the genuine elegance of a feline. And you have to respect Schneider for not taking the same route that so many other Saturday Night Live alumnus have stretching a good five minute skit into a disastrous two hour feature film (imagine watching a cinematic version of Richard "The Richmeister" Laymer). As for Haskell (Survivor) though she is incredibly adorable and natural looking she delivers her lines so slowly that she almost sounds childlike. Thank goodness there were not too many multi-syllabic words written into the script for her character Rianna. Bemusing cameo appearances from both Norm Macdonald and Adam Sandler add to the film's climax.
First-time director Luke Greenfield does a great job with the stunts (like Schneider gliding across the water like a circus seal or running inside a man-sized hamster wheel). They'll leave you wondering how they did it. Some props deserve an honorable mention like Marvin's bachelor pad with the garage door doubling as a home entertainment center or Dr. Wilder's barnyard laboratory. But while Schneider's antics will have you laughing they are not enough to carry the entire film. Tom Brady who wrote the screenplay with Schneider has worked on television shows such as The Simpsons and Men Behaving Badly and should have delivered nothing less than solid laugh-a-minute comedy-but didn't. The story leads up to a disappointing conclusion that looks like it was drawn up in 60 seconds. Nonetheless the story is sweet in its own corny sort of way.