Nobody is who they seem to be in "Slow Burn," but mainstream auds probably won't get the chance to care. Despite the game genre efforts of a vet cast and a solid tech package, this convoluted urban riff on "The Usual Suspects," shot in 2003 and only now being unveiled, fails to ignite the imagination and has direct-to-video etched all over it.

Nobody is who they seem to be in “Slow Burn,” but mainstream auds probably won’t get the chance to care. Despite the game genre efforts of a vet cast and a solid tech package, this dauntingly convoluted urban riff on “The Usual Suspects,” shot in 2003 and only now being unveiled, fails to ignite the imagination and has direct-to-video etched all over it.

In a troubled nocturnal cityscape that’s never specifically identified (pic was shot in seedy Montreal neighborhoods), ambitious district attorney Ford Cole (Ray Liotta) suddenly has a lot on his plate. At the same time he’s gearing up to run for mayor, his beautiful assistant DA and part-time lover Nora Timmer (Jolene Blalock) staggers into a local police precinct claiming to have been raped by record store clerk Isaac Duparde (Mekhi Phifer), who’s now lying dead in her bed. All this is observed by magazine journalist Trippin (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who’s left cooling his heels in the waiting room, trading quips with the desk officer (character actor Joe Grifasi, apparently uncredited).

Minutes later, Luther Pinks (James Todd Smith — aka LL Cool J, according to the onscreen credit) strolls into the station claiming Nora was actually coming on to Isaac to glean info on elusive gangland kingpin Danny Lewton. It’s the first of many layers and subplots.

But, what begins as a moderately interesting set of interconnected mysteries involving race and identity soon grows eye-rollingly laborious, not to mention increasingly derivative of Christopher McQuarrie’s “Usual Suspects” script. Debuting helmer Wayne Beach, whose own scripts include the Wesley Snipes starrers “Murder at 1600″ and “The Art of War,” becomes so distracted by discreetly framed scenes of lovemaking between Nora and Isaac, or Nora and Cole, that such beguiling character traits as Luther’s penchant for relating spaces around him to smell — “burned pot roast” for the cop shop — are fumbled away with such subsequent howlers as: “She walked into the room smelling like mashed potatoes, and every guy there wanted to be the gravy.”

Liotta’s trademark intensity typifies the cast’s valiant struggle with murky material. Smith and Bruce McGill as a swaggering police chief attack their roles with varying degrees of relish, and Blalock (T’Pol in the “Enterprise” tube franchise), is game in a part that seems just out of her grasp.

Wally Pfister, who shot both “Memento” and “Insomnia,” imbues the proceedings with a much-needed visual oomph enhanced by production designer Tim Galvin’s sinister take on industrial hallways and interrogation rooms. A climactic explosion looks cheesy.

In a pic so concerned with masks and senses of self, press kit amusingly and consistently misidentifies Liotta’s character as Ford “Lowell,” when the name “Cole” is emblazoned on numerous campaign posters in one sequence. Thesp and co-producer Fisher Stevens has one scene as a real estate speculator.

Slow Burn

Production

A GreeneStreet Films, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment production. (International sales: GreeneStreet Films Intl., New York.) Produced by Fisher Stevens, Sidney Kimmel, Bonnie Timmermann, Tim Williams. Executive producers, John Penotti, Andrew Karsch, Andy Reiner. Co-producer, Matthew Rowland. Directed, written by Wayne Beach, from a story by Beach, Anthony Walton.

Crew

Camera (color), Wally Pfister; editor, Kristina Boden; music, Jeff Rona; production designer, Tim Galvin; costume designer, Nicoletta Massone; sound (Dolby Digital), Pierre Blain. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 14, 2005. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Ray Liotta, James Todd Smith (aka LL Cool J), Mekhi Phifer, Bruce McGill, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Guy Torry, Taye Diggs, Jolene Blalock.
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