'Point of Origin' Disappoints

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Despite a promising premise and a strong cast — headed by Ray Liotta and John Leguizamo — Home Box Office's Point of Origin, unfortunately, is even more confusing than the arson case its fictional investigators are called upon to unravel.

The film's focal point is John Orr (Liotta), a decorated arson investigator with the Glendale, Calif., fire department, and his protégé, Keith Lang (Leguizamo). It's the late 1980s, and a string of suspicious fires in Southern California (based on real-life events) are taking a toll in both property damage and human lives.

After several incidents — which Orr is unable to determine the cause of — the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is brought in to head a joint task force investigating the blazes. Lang is tapped for that task force and Orr is brought in to consult on the arsonist's profile.

Liotta's character determines that the culprit is a white, male loner — likely an ex-fireman himself — and someone who returns to the scene to watch what he's wrought. "This is about ego, not fire," he says.

After some initial futile searches, the investigators find a single fingerprint on an incendiary device that yields their first break in the case. They also notice a pattern of arsons throughout California that lead the group to suspect a firefighter. Orr becomes the lead suspect, and that's when the movie starts to lose what was already a tenuous grip on realism.

That's due in large part to director Newton Thomas Siegel's overuse of special effects and other stylistic tricks, which does more to muddle things than drive the plot. There are scenes in which the "suspected" arsonist makes his moves, but it's not obvious that those scenes are fantasy. There are other scenes — in which Liotta's character visualizes himself "inside" a fire — that do more to justify the CGI budget than drive the action.

Despite a solid performance by Liotta, Orr's character shifts rather abruptly from stand-up guy to suspect after a scene in which Lang tails him, and finds him cheating on his wife with a female cop (Ileana Douglas). A more gradual deterioration of Orr's boy-scout image — as well as more judicious use of technical tricks — would have made this true-life adaptation ring truer to life.

Point of Origin
bows Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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