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It could have been a gas, but lack of suspense breaks 'The Deal'

Any thriller shameless enough to ask the husky-voiced, pencil-thin sexpot Angie Harmon to use a soupy Russian accent should be a scream. Yet ''The Deal," which also stars Christian Slater, is seldom entertaining. This is one of those corporate conspiracy movies with a lot of characters who look crooked simply by the hang of their suits.

That crucial sense of danger or suspense is missing. Blame the unsexy subject matter if you want, but blame the uninspired casting first.

Slater plays Tom Hanson, a Wall Street investment banker whose latest client, Condor Oil & Gas, has enlisted him to help engineer the acquisition of a Russian oil company for $20 billion while the United States is at war with the ''Confederation of Arab States." It's a big deal in a tense resource climate, and Tom knows nothing about oil and gas. And the offer is opportune. Gas is six dollars a gallon; apparently, oil reserves are drying up; and one Condor employee, smelling a rat at the company, tries to quit and is summarily, if not all that mysteriously, murdered. (The guy's boss is played by the growling Robert Loggia, a man who's made quite a living being shady.)

The dead suit was a friend of Tom's, and the murder leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Unfortunately, they're neither suspensefully asked nor compellingly answered. ''The Deal" offers an idea of megabusiness as an international cabal that's loaded with the clichés found in movies usually associated with whistle-blowers. Tom is in as much danger as Karen Silkwood, or Jeffrey Wigand in ''The Insider." One night, he's nearly run off the road.

But Slater, who is an executive producer of the film, can be such an abrasive presence that Tom wins no sympathy on his own. The addition of Selma Blair as Abbey Gallagher, the environmentalist with a Harvard MBA whom Slater hires to work at his firm, should raise the emotional stakes.

No one, though, seems to have told the actress. Blair looks like she stayed up late studying for finals. She mumbles, pouts, and appears to be wholly uninterested in talking about ''turning alternative energy tax credits into marketable securities." (Selma, I'm with you.) Yet, miscast as she is, as the film goes on and Abbey turns into a workplace snoop, you fall for her sleepy-mopey acting strategy.

''The Deal" was written by Ruth Epstein (a former Goldman Sachs bigwig) and directed by Harvey Kahn, a producer of movies only premium cable subscribers see. (After all, you probably didn't see Jon Bon Jovi and Bai Ling in ''Row Your Boat" when it played at the mall.)

As topical as this movie is, its worries don't resonate; we're never provoked, say, to cynically consider moving into a yurt. There's no panic or paranoia, and the performances range from the formidable (Colm Feore as Tom's jealous co-worker) to the NBC-movie-of-the-week (see Angie Harmon). ''The Deal" is an airport paperback thriller trapped in a movie's body, and Kahn has a terrible time setting it free.

That's too bad. Epstein's script is mostly decent, even daring once or twice to be old-school trashy. In the latter going, Tom turns cold toward Abbey in order to protect her from certain danger (yes, they are lovers), and, hurt, she says, ''Maybe you found a lower risk investment." Tom clarifies: ''High return, too, baby!"

Not even Tony Curtis could have pulled that line off with a straight face. But, boy, would it have been more fun watching him try instead.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris

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