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.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.