October 02, 1995 12:00 PM

Denzel Washington, Jennifer Beats, Tom Sizemore, Don Cheadle

Nothing brings you up faster from a slouch to the edge of your seat than realizing that the movie you’ve just begun watching could turn out to be really special. So it is with Devil in a Blue Dress, a flashy whodunit directed with confident vigor by Carl Franklin (One False Move), who adapted his screenplay from Walter Mosley’s bestselling novel. The movie aims to be a black Chinatown, and, for a while, it nearly succeeds.

Washington is sure, sharp and sexy in what may turn out to be his signature role, that of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, a World War II vet in Los Angeles. It’s 1948, and Easy has just been fired from his job as an aircraft machinist. So he listens when a shady operator (Sizemore) promises him big bucks for information on the whereabouts of a black mayoral candidate’s white ex-girlfriend (Beals), who has been hanging out in black bars. Washington’s search for her leads him into a netherworld of political extortion, in which he becomes the fall guy for a murder.

The film is nearly stolen by Cheadle (TV’s Picket Fences) as Washington’s amoral, quick-trigger pal Mouse. But Blue Dress never quite fulfills its early promise. As the body count mounts, the plot grows murky. By the final scene, the only thing certain is Washington’s star power. If he does a sequel (there are three more Rawlins novels), he’ll be on easy street. (R)

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