Courtesy Photo
Directed by Dwight Little

Starring Wesley Snipes, Diane Lane, Dennis Miller, Alan Alda, Ronny Cox & Daniel Banzali.

"Murder at 1600"

Opened: April 18, 1997 | Rated: R

For the first hour of "Murder at 1600," the new Wesley Snipes picture about a sex killing at the White House, I was engrossed.

Despite some misgivings regarding enormous loopholes in the plot, the mystery was complex and interesting, if a bit heavy on cliches.

The opening credits play over a nameless pretty young thing having sex in the Oval Office with a faceless man. When she turns up dead in a White House men's room, the president's staff is teeming with whodunit possibilities.

Could the killer be the president's horny college student son? National Security Advisor Alan Alda? Big, bald and mean-looking Secret Service chief Daniel Banzali (from TV's "Murder One")? Or perhaps the president himself (Ronny Cox)?

The tension is strong from the beginning as Snipes, a D.C. homicide cop, is stonewalled by the Secret Service. Surveillance tapes disappear, the girl's apartment is cleaned out within half an hour of her death, and our detective is left with little to go on.

Snipes is in his least stereotyped role in years here, and with a strong supporting cast (even if most of them are playing empty suits), "Murder at 1600" looks to become a hand-wringing politically-charged murder mystery.

But once the conspiracy theories start flying, the movie abandons its sensibility and gets sloppy.

Snipes' partner, played by comedian Dennis Miller, doesn't seem to do any investigating and just make wise cracks on the phone from his apartment. In fact, Snipes seems to be the only cop on the case -- I mean, this is a murder at the White House and the FBI is never even mentioned.

However, the story doesn't completely derail until the last half of the film and many early twists seem promising.

With reluctant help from a suspicious Secret Service agent (Diane Lane), Snipes finds evidence the girl may have been planning a tell-all interview about her sexcapades with the First Family. A plot may also be afoot to frame the president over his pacifist stand on a hostage crisis in North Korea.

Now, granted, some of the best seat-grippers still require you check your brain at the door and I'm willing to forgive a lot when I'm having fun. I even let slide the fact that the First Son drives a convertible -- like the Secret Service didn't learn that lesson in 1963.

But around the middle of the movie, "Murder at 1600" starts playing like a senseless shopping list of thriller prerequisites.

The Secret Service chief has a change of heart, but is shot just as he begins to sing about the cover-up. Subsequently, Snipes and Lane end up on the run, and the tough guys giving chase regularly forego their loaded firearms in favor of lengthy hand-to-hand combat.

When the Secret Service find the detective hiding out in a hotel, he escapes through the back door, as if the encroaching agents wouldn't have thought of that. (Besides, when was the last time you were in a hotel room with a back door?)

The nonsense peaks when Snipes and Lane successfully sneak into the executive mansion through a tunnel -- according to Lane, one of the three "vulnerable" entrances to the White House that the Secret Service knows about but mysteriously hasn't bothered to secure.

By the time the final act rolls around, "Murder at 1600" requires more suspension of disbelief than 10 Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. The tension is steamrolled by the absurdity until we're left with one of those unforgivable bad guy-not-quite-dead-yet shoot-'em-up endings.

In the last 20 minutes I was laughing so hard I made the people in front of me mad. Really mad.

How does a movie that starts out so exciting end up such a ham? One might ask director Dwight Little. He also helmed the miserable "Halloween 4," "Free Willy 2" and a Steven Seagal bomb called "Marked for Death." He's good at creating a tingling atmosphere, but he clearly was applying the same muscle-headed logic to this thriller as he has to his previous efforts.

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