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Murder at Sixteen Hundred

Directed by Dwight H. Little. Starring Wesley Snipes, Diane Lane, Alan Alda, Daniel Benzali, Dennis Miller. (1997, R, 109 min.)

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., April 18, 1997

For about half its duration, Murder at 1600 hunkers in the canebrake, passing itself off as yet another feeble, Grishamesque government conspiracy groaner. But before anyone actually gets around to saying, “Do you have any idea who you're dealing with here, little man?” it abruptly rises to deliver a couple of fresh plot convolutions that make the experience more fun and mentally engaging than we've been led to expect. Please note that I speak of enjoyment, not credibility. That gets severely strained by the basic premise, in which a looming sex/murder scandal (a young woman has been killed in the wee hours after a consensual tryst with some unknown party in the White House) is covered up by the Secret Service and the inevitable shadowy higher-ups. Of course, events of recent years take much of the potential shock away from hearing the words “semen samples” and “Oval Office” in close proximity, but the question of how police might deal with a serious crime in which members of the First Family are suspects is still an intriguing one. Snipes, as the D.C. homicide cop who draws the assignment, plays his role with little of the macho bluster of his recent action hero turns. His Detective Harlan Regis is a no-sweat, Type-B guy who spends his off hours building miniature historical dioramas. Lane, as a WASPish, uptight Secret Service agent who grudgingly assists him, meshes agreeably with Snipes' charming, freewheeling Regis. She's pretty slick at the action stuff too, handling it with a confident, credible athleticism that places her just below Geena Davis' The Long Kiss Goodnight character in the cinematic “bad mama” pantheon. Benzali and Alda play the President's security chief and top advisor, respectively. Both are apparent stock figures whose characters and roles mutate interestingly as the story develops. Still, let's not get carried away by our gratitude at receiving Wonder Bread when we expected moldy cheese. Director Little, who previously has helmed mostly cheap horror and action knockoffs, reaches a new career plateau here, though mostly by imitating the styles of successful action hacks like Michael Bay and Tony Scott. The story, serviceable though it is, still shatters like eggshells under even the lightest scrutiny, and the dialogue is often stale beyond belief. (“The presidency is an institution, not a person!”) But if you can just shift your mind a couple of months ahead into lowered-expectations summer movie mode, you'll have a fine old time with Murder at 1600.
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