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Latest White House Guest: Wesley Snipes

'Murder at 1600' falls victim to trendy government-bashing

Many of today's headlines deal with actual or potential government scandals. Yet polls suggest that many Americans are only mildly troubled by such stuff, as long as the country keeps running on a reasonably steady course.

Hollywood hasn't gotten this message. According to the studios, American attitudes toward government range from surly to hostile, and there's nothing an audience likes better than seeing Washington trashed. Any doubt about this was dispelled when "Independence Day" parlayed a wildly anti-Washington plot - complete with space invaders blowing up a White House presided over by a dithering president - into the biggest box-office numbers of 1996.

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But it's risky to rely on Hollywood for up-to-the-minute news about public opinion, since feature films take a long time to work their way to the multiplex. The popularity of "Independence Day" failed to reignite this year in "Absolute Power," a quickly forgotten melodrama pitting Clint Eastwood against Gene Hackman as a president who is downright evil. "Mars Attacks!" also crash-landed with its satirical view of a Washington.

"Murder at 1600," directed by Dwight Little, probably won't do much better. Taking a cautious route, it fills the White House with a veritable army of shifty-looking suspects while ultimately assuring us that the highest brass wouldn't do any harm.

Some moviegoers may find a certain naughty attraction in a story that mixes sex and violence with military strategy and presidential politics. But most will find the plot so hokey and the action so predictable that a dollop of trendy government-bashing isn't nearly enough to justify the price of a ticket.

The ever-cool Wesley Snipes plays Harlan Regis, a Washington homicide detective assigned to find out who killed a 25-year-old woman in the White House after a sexual rendezvous. Suspicion falls on everyone from a cleaning attendant to the chief executive himself, with particular attention settling on his randy young son.

Regis has a hard job facing him, and it gets harder when White House insiders start blocking his path. Further complicating the hunt is a national-security crisis: American soldiers are being held hostage by North Korea's government. Americans are curious about how their president will get these boys home, when he can't even defend his own house from mayhem and disorder.

"Murder at 1600" tries for psychological depth. Lest we wonder whether the president is manly enough to lead, for instance, he gets to sock a bad guy during the climax. But most of the movie's slender interest lies in Snipes's likable acting, which is subtle enough to balance Alan Alda as a White House operative and Diane Lane as a Secret Service agent.

Since the US film industry remains a largely white domain, it's always refreshing to see a fine African-American talent like Snipes land a major role, even if the movie is less than impressive. Still, it's worth noting that most big-studio films starring black men break Hollywood's pattern of letting hero and heroine pair off.

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"Murder at 1600" joins other recent movies like "Courage Under Fire" and "The Pelican Brief" in keeping the black male protagonist and his white female counterpart at a conspicuously safe distance from each other. Even in the supposedly unbiased '90s, it appears, the combination of race and romance is still too hot for Hollywood to handle.

* 'Murder at 1600' is rated R; it contains explicit sex, frequent violence, and vulgar language.

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