Saturday, April 12, 2014

Shenanigans in the White House? Naaahhhh...: "Murder at 1600" (1997)

As political conspiracy films of 1997 go, "Murder at 1600" is no "Absolute Power," but definitely better than "Shadow Conspiracy."

Wesley Snipes is DC detective Harlan Regis, who plays by his own rules (yeah, I know). He and his cracking-wise partner Stengel (Dennis Miller...Dennis Miller?) are called to investigate a dead woman's body found in a bathroom at the White House. This list of suspects is long. Regis is stonewalled right away by evil White House security guy Spikings (Daniel Benzali, who is filmed as if possessed by Satan himself). The wimpy President Jack Neil's (Ronny Cox) hot-to-trot son Kyle (Tate Donovan) is finally the red herring Regis settles on, until brought new information from Secret Service Agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane). National Security Adviser Jordan tries to advise the president through a "international crisis" (a US military plane's crew is being held hostage in North Korea), and lead Regis and Chance through the bureaucracy surrounding the murder investigation.

This was filmed back when Snipes was a big-screen action hero, and his performance here is very good. The entire cast, in fact, is good, and Snipes keeps up with them in a performance that could have turned this into a franchise of more Harlan Regis conspiracy adventures. Dwight Little's direction is better than the terrible script, his action sequences are nicely edited and effectively shot, including a shoot-out and fistfight in a suburban home that is nothing short of excellent.

The biggest problem with the film is the script. First of all, some of the characters' names sound like they were improvised during an afternoon screenwriting seminar- Harlan Regis? Nina Chance? Nick Spikings? An assassin named John Kerry? Regis is given some nice characterization. He's a history buff, and his building is being razed to make room for a parking garage, all stuff that Snipes plays well. However, a good back story cannot make up for some incredible leaps in logic, and screenwriting conveniences for the sake of moving the plot along. One such scene has White House security seizing the personal effects of the murdered victim, yet "hiding" them in an evidence room where anyone, like our secret service agent leading lady, can get ahold of it. Also, how fortunate is it that a secret tunnel taking our heroes into the White House is guarded by exactly two padlocks and a motion sensor? The film's politics do skew a little left naturally, since this is Hollywood, with the military men pushing war while the president wants to take his time and negotiate. The final motive for the murder is also unnecessarily complicated, and you may realize that the murderer and head conspirator didn't have to stage the killing at the White House, and still could have put their evil plan into action. Then again, the title "Murder Kinda Near 1600, Like a Block Over" doesn't have the same ring to it. Watch for an uncomfortable bit involving Charles Rocket as a suicidal government worker. Rocket did eventually kill himself in real life, and the scene made me squirm.

In the end, "Murder at 1600" doesn't succeed, and after the known Washington DC security upgrades after the 9-11 attacks, turns it into a nostalgic but poor actioner. (* *) out of five stars.