"Slow Burn," the directorial debut of screenwriter Wayne Beach ("The Art of War"), is a lesson in how not to make a multiple-viewpoint mystery. A veritable rip-off of 1995's "The Usual Suspects," Beach's crime caper not-so-subtly apes Bryan Singer's use of multiple red herrings and flashback-heavy interrogation scenes, but lacks the stylistic flair and sophisticated narrative skills to pull off a similar feat of cinematic intrigue.
Ray Liotta stars as Ford Cole, the district attorney and mayoral candidate of an unnamed metropolis. His seemingly on-track life, however, is disrupted when his assistant D A (and secret lover) Nora (Jolene Blalock) is accused of murdering a record store clerk (Mekhi Phifer) she claims was trying to rape her. Complicating matters is friend of the deceased Luther Pinks (James Todd Smith, literally co-billed on screen as LL Cool J), who claims Nora is part of a larger gangland conspiracy involving real estate.
Rather pointlessly, Pinks is cursed with an overly acute sense of smell, allowing him to alternatively describe the oft scantily clad Nora -- whose flower tattoo directly above her rear is given ample screen time -- alternately as a tangerine "ripe and ready to be peeled" and the mashed potatoes for which every guy wanted to be the "gravy." Beach also, over-ambitiously, crams in a bizarre subplot involving Nora's bi racial heritage that comes off more forced than culturally revelatory.
The film's greatest shame is its lost potential. Taye Diggs and the excellent British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor are among the bit players involved in the con and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Wally Pfister, who lights all of Christopher Nolan's films, seems to be relying on a smoke machine to conjure up confusion and misdirection. Originally shot in 2003 and held theatrically since 2005, "Burn" is a flame that should never have been lit.
Michelle Kung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.