HBO // 2002 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Nelson (Retired) // June 5th, 2003
When they arrive at a crime scene, one of them has been there before.
I grew up in California when these arsons were happening. My home was one mountain ridge away from the deadly 1991 Berkeley Hills fire that ravaged much of the East Bay of San Francisco. We take arson very seriously in those drought prone parts. While Point of Origin takes place in Southern California, the story could be transplanted to almost any region of the country.
John Orr (Ray Liotta, Identity, Narc) is a veteran arson investigator in Southern California with an uncanny knack of discovering the start and cause of fires, or the "point of origin." His young tutelage, Keith Lang (John Leguizamo, Moulin Rouge, Ice Age idolizes his mentor's innate ability to identify arson fires over accidental or naturally occurring fires. But when a string of arsons break out across the region, it becomes clear that these fires were set by someone with a great understanding of the nature of fire. Only a fully trained arson investigator could get away with such dastardly deeds, and only a fully trained arson investigator could stop him. One of these two men may be chasing the other.
Based on actual events, this movie dramatizes the six-year effort to catch the perpetrator of the Glendale fires of the 1980s. Compressed down into a series of weeks instead of years, Point of Origin looks at the men involved in catching the arsonist, who could very well be one of their own.
Newton Thomas Sigel makes his directorial debut after working as a cinematographer for such films as X-Men, X2, and The Usual Suspects. Compositionally, the movie is crafted with extra care to the treatment of fire on the frame, perhaps more so than the rest of the movie. Everything else doesn't feel special when compared to the fire; in fact, it feels boxed in, like it is trapped in the TV. Produced and first aired on HBO, it would have been a different movie had it been designed initially for a theatrical release instead of for the small screen.
Ray Liotta does an interesting character study into the mind of an arson investigator that must think like the arsonist in order to catch one. John Leguizamo sets aside his funny-man routine for a very serious and humble approach to the sidekick-coming-of-age character of John Orr's partner. Actual members of the Glendale Arson Investigation team also make small cameos as themselves, in the roles that they played in the actual investigation, keeping the film grounded in the reality it is depicting.
Most of the colors during certain sequences are saturated, sometimes overly so, which does distract somewhat from the viewing. Some other sequences are significantly desaturated and muted. These are intentional, made clear after viewing the film. More annoying, however, is the color bleed in the reds and blue in certain shots, especially during the fire sequences. For a made for TV movie, one would hope HBO would know how to make their productions color-safe for broadcast. I never saw it on HBO when it initially aired, so I cannot comment on whether this color bleed is an intentional thematic device, or just plain poor craftsmanship on the DVD transfer. Noticeable grain also detracts from the image as well, another check against the video transfer.
The sound quality is sharp and crisp for most of the sequences, nothing that will rock your speakers, nor would you want them to in this film.
Extra features are quite limited on the disc, only the ever pervasive cast and crew bios and an audio commentary by director Newton Thomas Sigel. The latter is actually quite interesting, for he details the parallels of reality to how it was dealt with in the movie, making a fairly faithful replication of the events as they transpired. It is recommended that you listen to this track, but be warned that if you have not already seen the film, there are heavy spoilers in the very beginning of the audio commentary.
(Standing on box labeled "soap.") Arson is a very serious problem and any attempt to curb such behavior must be encouraged. (Stepping off said box.) That said, it does not necessarily help the cause when the subject matter is shown with almost the same perverse attraction as the arsonist might view his/her work. But then, one could argue, "It's just a movie, man, don't be such a square." Well, I'm too hip to be square, so I'll just stay away from that slippery slope.
This movie is a made-for-TV after-school special with fancy pyrotechnics. If you are looking for entertainment and fire, put down the matches and rent Backdraft. Rent Point of Origin for the factual portrayal of an arson investigation and an interesting character study into the mind of an arsonist.
Only you can prevent forest fires (you didn't honestly think I wouldn't get that in somewhere, now, did you?), and only this court can render a verdict. We find HBO not guilty of arson, but issue a slap on the wrist for its handling of the DVD. Case dismissed!
Review content copyright © 2003 Jonathan Nelson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Director
* Cast and Crew Bios