Slow Burn

“The Usual Suspects” had Keyser Soze, the fearsome criminal whom no one had ever seen. “Slow Burn” has Danny Lewton, a gang lord who has become a multimillionaire by funneling his illegal activities through shell corporations, and whose face is unknown to the police who search for him.

In a week that already had an uncredited rip-off of an older film (“Disturbia,” redolent of “Rear Window”), I’m surprised we’d get something the same day whose thefts were even more outrageous, but here we are. “Slow Burn,” filmed in 2003 and just now deposited into theaters, is “The Usual Suspects” all over, with its police-station setting, its unreliable narrators, and its fabled kingpin. In fact, I hesitate to list all the ways it’s similar to “The Usual Suspects,” because doing so would spoil some of the twists in “Slow Burn.”

One way it is not similar is that “The Usual Suspects” was a very good movie, while “Slow Burn” is more or less useless. Its cavalcade of “twists” in the last 20 minutes come off the conveyor belt so quickly and haphazardly that they all wind up in a big pile on the floor, waiting to be snorted at by incredulous viewers. And everything before that is mildly interesting at best.

Set in an unnamed but rather New York-y metropolis, the film stars Ray Liotta as Ford Cole, district attorney and future mayoral candidate. His top prosecutor, Nora Timmer (Jolene Blalock), is biracial, giving her insights into the black community that Ford himself doesn’t have. She’s been instrumental in prosecuting gang- and drug-related crimes, boosting the D.A. office’s profile and increasing Ford’s chances of being elected mayor. Oh, and she’s had an affair with Ford.

Nora shows up at the police station late one night declaring she was nearly raped by a record-store clerk named Isaac Duperde (Mekhi Phifer), and that she shot and killed him in self-defense. Seems reasonable enough, until a man named Luther Pinks (James Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J) shows up claiming to be a friend of the deceased and offering a contradictory story. Nora says she only met Isaac a week ago and that he was essentially a stranger; Luther says Isaac and Nora go back four months, and that he was practically living at her house. Luther’s story is plausible, too: He knows about the tattoo Nora has on her booty.

How does all of this relate to the elusive Danny Lewton? Well, Nora has been trying to bring him down, and Isaac may have had information that could have helped her. It soon becomes apparent who’s telling the truth and who’s lying, and the only thing left for us is to wait patiently for the movie to give us the whole convoluted story. Who is Jeffrey Sykes (Taye Diggs), a low-level criminal currently in city lock-up? Why is there a newspaper reporter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging around the police station, waiting for Ford Cole? How does the chief of police (Bruce McGill) figure into all this?

The answers are not as earth-shattering as writer/director Wayne Beach (writer of Wesley Snipes vehicles “Murder at 1600” and “The Art of War”) would like them to be. With the odd details (Luther describes everything in terms of smells; Danny Lewton has every episode of “Friends” on tape) and bluesy, smoky atmosphere, Beach has made either a very goofy tribute to film noir, or a very dull film noir. The tone is somewhere between “Chinatown” and a sultry made-for-Cinemax cheese-fest.

He does introduce a very intriguing idea, though, in his brief exploration into the politics of race. Nora has gotten ahead by being half-black, yet there’s some evidence that she’s not black at all. (“The closest her family’s been to Africa is ‘Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits,'” someone says.) The question of why a white person would pretend to be black, and how that person could benefit from it, would make for a fascinating study. I would like to have seen that angle investigated more thoroughly, especially since nothing else in “Slow Burn” is particularly worth paying attention to.

C- (1 hr., 33 min.; R, brief partial nudity and brief strong sexuality, scattered harsh profanity, mild violence.)