Murder at 1600 (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The "1600" in the title, Murder at 1600, refers to a house number on Pennsylvania Avenue: the address of the White House. That makes this the third movie in three months (following Shadow Conspiracy and Absolute Power) to deal with high-level government cover-ups, murders, and conspiracies. Who said Americans are cynical about the Presidency?

Murder at 1600 isn't the worst of the trio (that dubious honor goes to Shadow Conspiracy), but it is easily the most preposterous. There's hardly a single aspect of this motion picture that seems more than superficially credible, and if the United States government is really run in the Keystone Cops manner depicted in Wayne Beach and David Hodgin's script, then this country is in a great deal more trouble than anyone suspects.

Murder at 1600 opens with a sex scene in the Oval Office, during which a unknown man is enjoying the favors of a gorgeous blond. (Could that man be the President? The President's son? The bald head of the Secret Service wearing a wig?) Shortly thereafter, the woman's bloody corpse is discovered in a White House bathroom. While the Secret Service swarms in to get the situation under control, Washington homicide detective Harlan Regis (Wesley Snipes) is called in to investigate. We know he's a good cop because a needlessly obvious prologue gives us a sample of his on-the-job talents as he uses unorthodox methods to save a suicidal man's life.

Regis is out of his depth on this murder, however. The head of the Secret Service, Nick Spikings (Daniel Benzali), is downright belligerent, and only the intervention of Alvin Jordan (Alan Alda), the President's National Security Advisor, prevents him from forcibly ejecting Regis from the White House. Nina Chance (Diane Lane), Regis' Secret Service liaison (and former gold medal winning sharpshooter), is equally frosty and unhelpful. And governmental forces begin to close ranks as the trail of blood points squarely at President Jack Neil (Ronny Cox) and his son, Kyle (Tate Donovan). Meanwhile, as if Neil doesn't have enough to worry about at home, an overseas hostage crisis threatens to boil over.

While there isn't much that director Dwight Little can do about the lack of intelligence in the storyline, he attempts (with varying success) to make up for this deficiency by generating a degree of tension during some of the otherwise-routine action sequences. And, although there's little doubt regarding the film's ultimate resolution, there is at least some suspense about exactly how it comes about.

Hollywood should be able to generate a more compelling picture with such a promising premise. Perhaps Murder at 1600's greatest flaw is that it's so ordinary. There's nothing new here: we have the maverick cop risking everything by taking on the system so that a killer can be brought to justice. Along the way, there are the requisite chases, fights, and shoot-outs, but nothing in this film, from beginning to end, sets itself apart as even slightly memorable. The subject matter, if not the presidency, deserves more respect.

Wesley Snipes is pleasant as usual, but this role could hardly be described as a challenge. Diane Lane fails to bring much emotion or appeal to the thankless role of Snipes' female sidekick. Despite displaying more energy than Lane, Dennis Miller (as Regis' partner) has less screen time. Daniel Benzali plays the stereotypical bully in a position of power. And Alan Alda, last seen traipsing through Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, adds another less-than-sterling entry to his underwhelming recent resume.

It's apparent that Murder at 1600 underwent some fairly heavy re-editing shortly before its release. Not only are there some jarring transitions and conspicuous plot holes, but a number of scenes featured heavily during the theatrical previews (including Regis uttering the momentous line: "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- an address that changes all the rules") have been excised from the final print. Not having seen the original cut, I can't say whether these changes have helped Murder at 1600. Regardless of their impact, however, the result is nothing for any of the participants to be overly proud of.

Murder at 1600 (United States, 1997)

Director: Dwight Little
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Diane Lane, Dennis Miller, Daniel Benzali, Alan Alda, Ronny Cox
Screenplay: Wayne Beach & David Hodgin
Cinematography: Steven Bernstein
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 1997-04-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1