As a writing exercise—and, to a lesser extent, a showcase for actors—The Usual Suspects justifies its fervent cult following: Christopher McQuarrie's script is intricately constructed, makes brilliant use of the "unreliable narrator," and leads to a stinger of an ending that's genuinely surprising. But when the dust settles and the twists are untwisted, what else does the movie really have to offer? That question plagues Slow Burn, an exceedingly clumsy neo-noir that mimics The Usual Suspects' script to such a degree that McQuarrie should have issued a restraining order on writer-director Wayne Beach. In the early going, Beach seems prepared to do McQuarrie one better by using his convoluted plot to explore the sophisticated designs of the criminal elite, and how their multi-tentacled operation shapes the city and undermines justice. But by about the sixth or seventh time the plot changes direction, it's hard to remember what the movie's trying to say.
Leading a cast loaded with first-rate character actors, Ray Liotta stars as an ambitious district attorney whose strong prosecutorial record has made him the leading candidate for mayors. His political fortunes are tied to his assistant D.A. and lover Jolene Blalock, who has a stellar reputation for putting away members of a gang so powerful that Liotta compares it to a Fortune 500 company. Liotta's world begins to unravel when Blalock is brought in for murdering record-store clerk Mekhi Phifer. Blalock claims that Phifer tried to rape her and she shot him in self-defense, but mysterious witness James Todd Smith attests that the two had been lovers for some time, and the killing was linked to a criminal plan to overhaul a precious hunk of real estate.
Completed back in 2002, Slow Burn looks like it's been taken out of mothballs, with a gray-brown visual palette that seems designed to bore audiences to tears. For all the acting talent on screen—the terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor and Bruce McGill are limited to minor supporting roles—much of the characterization gets lost in the script's impossibly dense machinations, which anchor the film in leaden flashbacks and monologues. There's some potential in Liotta's character, a fundamentally decent guy who can't help but be tainted by the corruption that surrounds him, but Beach seems more interested in The Usual Suspects' strategy of wowing people with cleverness. What results are surprises without sustenance.