What with the recent fuss over pricey sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom and coffee at costs Starbucks would envy, Bill Clinton may think he has White House problems. But those are as dust in the wind compared to what President Jack Neil has to contend with in "Murder at 1600."
It's not just a domestic policy initiative that's dead in the water, there's an actual corpse bleeding all over a White House bathroom floor from multiple stab wounds. That kind of thing can cast a hell of a shadow over an administration already dealing with a hostage crisis in North Korea. Especially when unflappable, unstoppable D.C. homicide Det. Harlan Regis starts digging around.
Starring Wesley Snipes as the suave Regis, "Murder at 1600" is the modern equivalent of the routine B-picture, diverting in a small potatoes kind of way, though its budget and stars are big league. Eager to provide its hero with convenient back doors to get out of and its heroine with tight sweaters to wear when the going gets tough, "Murder at 1600" plays out like an airport paperback, serviceable at passing the time if nothing else is available.
That corpse turns out to be Carla Town, one of the more lithesome employees of the Office of Protocol. She's glimpsed very much alive under the opening credits, having sex with an unknown man somewhere in the White House as portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson look on unperturbed.
Equally blase is Det. Regis, the kind of smooth operator capable of disarming a potential suicide on his coffee break. He and his partner (Dennis Miller) are called in to investigate because the White House is in Washington, after all, but, except for fatherly National Security Advisor Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda), no one is particularly happy to see them.
Most unhappy is Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali of TV's "Murder One"), head of the White House security forces. Haughty, bullet-headed, with the stare of a malevolent Buddha, Spikings feels personally aggrieved that a murder should have taken place on his turf, and Regis' presence steps on his last nerve.
Still, Spikings does assign Secret Service agent Nina Chance (Diane Lane) to be Regis' liaison. Neither is initially happy with the matchup, but that just makes their becoming buddies inevitable. Soon he's showing her his scale models of Civil War battlefields (surely the oddest movie cop hobby in memory), and she's telling him about the gold medal she won as an Olympic sharpshooter. If you don't think that skill comes in handy down the road, this movie is not for you.
Even with his friendship with agent Chance, Regis has trouble getting arrested, so to speak, in the evidence gathering department. The Secret Service impounds everything that's not tied down and calls it classified, and at various times Regis is followed, spied on, beaten up, misled and lied to. Does this seriously impede his investigation? Did Tiger Woods have trouble at the Masters?
Director Dwight Little, with straight-ahead action movies like "Marked for Death" and "Rapid Fire" to his credit (as well as "Free Willy 2"), does not embarrass himself here, but without Snipes, his charisma and his gift for making the absurd believable, "Murder at 1600" would be in a lot worse shape.
Almost dripping with charisma, Snipes is making a career out of being the best thing in indifferent movies, and a Wayne Beach & David Hodgin script, with more inexplicable gaps than the White House Watergate tapes, doesn't make his job any easier.
Though both Lane and Benzali are excellent foils for Snipes this time around, "Murder at 1600" mostly makes you hope that the actor could find more time on his schedule for films like "The Waterdance" or "White Men Can't Jump." Saving the presidency and saving this picture along with it may seem like quite an accomplishment, but Snipes is one actor who is capable of more.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, violence and some language. Times guidelines: numerous beatings and a bloody corpse.
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'Murder at 1600'
Wesley Snipes: Harlan Regis
Diane Lane: Nina Chance
Alan Alda: Alvin Jordan
Daniel Benzali: Nick Spikings
Ronny Cox: President Jack Neil
Dennis Miller: Det. Stengel
An Arnold Kopelson production, in association with Regency Enterprises, released by Warner Bros. Director Dwight Little. Producers Arnold Kopelson, Arnon Milchan. Executive producers Anne Kopelson, Michael Nathanson, Stephen Brown. Screenplay Wayne Beach & David Hodgin. Cinematographer Steven Bernstein. Editor Billy Weber. Costumes Denise Cronenberg. Music Christopher Young. Production design Nelson Coates. Art director Dan Yarhi. Set decorator Tedd Kuchera. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.