Like Clint's recent episode of geriatric cat-burgling, Absolute Power, Murder At 1600 can only have been made in the wake of those "'what if?'" scenarios flying about Washington following the unexplained suicide in 1993 of the Clinton aide Vince Foster. But could the two movies have far more than their subject matter in common? Conspiracy theory fans will doubtless see the strange tentacles of government in the fact that neither one is much cop - Eastwood's classier project had all the pace of, well, a 67-year-old, while Snipe's newie has more in common with his disturbingly long list of anything-for-a-pay-cheque bullets-and-bangs bollocks (Passenger 57, Boiling Point, Drop Zone, Money Train) than any political thriller proper. All The President's Men this most certainly ain't.
So what we have, then, is a predictable shoot-'em-up that masqueradesas both a government conspiracy thriller and an Agatha Christie-style locked room murder mystery. The script, from the typewriters of David Hodgin and Wayne Beach, does throw up food for thought, paralleling the President's domestic troubles (murdered member of staff, slimy girlfriend-beating son who appears to be the number one suspect) with an out-of-control overseas hostage situation that means he's being targeted by the capital's interminable crowd of military hard-asses. Regrettably this potentially interesting scenario is only a set-up for the main business of the day, namely heavily-telegraphed plot twists, two-fisted punch-ups and film-elongating chase sequences.
These all work well enough on their own unchallenging level - indeed, Murder At 1600's finest moments are those that show Snipe's impressive skills as a martial arts killing machine - but the very nature of the film's kick-off suggests we might be getting a whole lot more. Arms get busted in lifts, throats get crushed in hallways and necks get snapped in kitchens as Harlan Regis (was he named after a cosy English Riviera resort?) takes out unsympathetic Secret Servicemen in an array of satisfying close-quarter fight scenes. And although these pieces completely undermine the flick's fast-fading believability - explain to me again how this regular cop turned into such a bad ass? - they succeed in injecting a speedball of high-camp every time the dope of a script starts flagging.
All credit to Snipes that he's far better in Murder than many of his other "bet on black" action roles. Displaying an array of impressive physical moves, he also pumps unexpected vigour into his cliché-ridden investigator role, showing welcome signs of the piercing-eyed charisma he rode to stardom on. The promising actor who dominated early outings like King Of New York and New Jack City is alive and kicking, despite his wilderness years as an African-American Van Dumme.
Murder At 1600 also scores big time on the bad guy-ometer. Regis' security chief nemesis is portrayed with spectacularly glowering effect by TV's scariest slaphead, heavy-lidded Murder One hit Daniel Benzali - an actor who may be going through the motions, but still imparts Spikings with a corrupt, dead-eyed J Edgar Hoover-esque conviction that borders on the psychotic, and makes the movie's other villains pale into insignificance.
Alan Alda is humorously cast against type as the President's greasy National Security Advisor, but sadly the rest of the supporting cast fare less well. Unfunny US comedian Dennis Miller racks up another embarrassing non-performance as Regis' if-I-survive-beyond-reel-one-I'm-doing-well partner, while Diane Lane's Nina Chance is just Dredd's Judge Hershey by another name. A coolly professional, by-the-book Girl Friday, Chase abandons the rules she lives by to make our tough-as-nails hero look good. It's with her that the script blows it; after yammering on and on about her well-impressive gunslinging abilities (she's meant to be one of the Service's finest sharpshooters), Chance suddenly can't fire for squit when a key action scene bowls by, dissolving into a tiresome female in peril whose arse has to be hauled out of the fire by Wesley's strong tough-guy hero.
Most of Murder At 1600's weaknesses can be traced to a script which, like other recent attempts to revive the conspiracy thriller, only pays lip service to the genre, concentrating instead on the '90s vogue for ball-busting action. Given the director is mayhem specialist Dwight Little (Marked For Death, Rapid Fire and, erm, Free Willy 2), it's not surprising that the punch-ups are the flick's highpoint - it's just a shame that the film initially promises far more. Murder At 1600 is too well assembled to be a total wash-out, but it's no success either.