Jaq's Take on Slow Burn: Flame Out
by Jaq Greenspon
April 15, 2007
There's a way to make a movie where you don't give away everything, but instead give away just enough so the audience is on the edge of their seat, waiting for the moment they know must come. Hitchcock said it best: "There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it." And that's the mistake made by filmmaker Wayne Beach in his delayed from 2005 Slow Burn. Even films like Usual Suspects, from which this draws heavily, knew enough to provide tension and drama, if not in situations, then certainly in character. Slow Burn has none of that.
The plot is too complicated in Slow Burn to fully explicate here. Suffice to say it involves a lot of people lying, getting shot, pretending to be people they're not and a land deal gone right. The plot also borrows liberally from other films in addition to the already mentioned Usual Suspects. Take a deep breath and you get a whiff of Chinatown, a hint of L.A. Confidential mixed with a dash of Rashomon and then at the end, just as it's about to vanish, a nice aftertaste of The Shawshank Redemption. It's got an amazing cinematic pedigree. So why does it fail?
Slow Burn fails because it never finds its own way. It gets so caught up with being clever (see David Mamet) that it forgets about just telling a compelling story. And I'm being specific here, blaming the auteur, because for the most part, the actors are all turning in rather believable performances. Ray Liotta leads the cast with a credible job as a by-the-bootstraps DA Ford Cole, who also happens to be running for mayor. He has until dawn to solve a simple mystery: Why is there a dead man in the apartment of his assistant DA (and part-time lover) Nora Timmer at midnight? Over the course of the next five hours, Cole meets a series of underworld figures in an attempt to figure out what happens. This gets slightly more convoluted as it begins to intertwine with Cole's search for a Keyser Soze-like crime lord.
As Timmer, Jolene Blalock is not only the sole female in a testosterone heavy cast, but also the weakest link. Hired primarily for her looks and skin tone, Blalock has a hard time holding her own against heavyweights like Liotta, Taye Diggs, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mekhi Phifer and a surprisingly facile LL Cool J (here credited by his given name James Todd Smith). Amongst the wolves, Blalock's performance gets eaten. She's one dimensional when she needs to be more and when she needs to turn, to show her power, she falls flat. I'm not sure the fault is hers, though. Director Beach seems more interested in showing off what's inside her shirt than what's behind her eyes, a big mistake when she's supposed to be the player and not the played.
The flip side is Ejiofor (seen recently in Children of Men and Serenity) and Diggs. Either is ready to break out big. Diggs, especially, shows an ease of performance on the big screen he never seems to capture on TV. That said, is Slow Burn entertaining? Sure. It's like cotton candy. It's not gonna fill you up and it's not gonna stay with you long, but while you're eating it, you enjoy it. Just be careful not to eat to much or it'll rot your teeth.
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