A tasty if wildly far-fetched thriller, "Out of Time" proves far stronger in its characterizations than in developing genuine suspense. Star's drawing power and a reasonable number of audience-pleasing sex-and-crime tight spots indicate respectable midrange biz for this MGM release.

A tasty if wildly far-fetched thriller, “Out of Time” proves far stronger in its characterizations than in developing genuine suspense. Welcome reunion of Denzel Washington with “Devil in a Blue Dress” director Carl Franklin sees the actor displaying great cool under extreme pressure as a small-town Florida cop forced to dig himself out of a very deep hole of well-intentioned lies and deceit. Star’s drawing power and a reasonable number of audience-pleasing sex-and-crime tight spots indicate respectable midrange biz for this MGM release.

Dave Collard’s pulpy original script trades in the sort of exorbitant predicaments that often characterized B noirs of the late ’40s: outrageous conceits concocted with the single purpose of putting the characters through the wringer as frequently and uncomfortably as possible. Much of the fun comes from watching the victims squirm like bugs caught in a web, then narrowly escape through their ingenuity or, in lesser examples, preposterous deus ex machina plot resolutions.

The problem with such stories lies in making the viewer buy them in the first place, and in “Out of Time,” it’s much easier to believe in the characters and their relationships than it is to believe in what they actually do. It’s very easy to accept, for example, that good-looking, easy-going Matt Lee Whitlock (Washington) has everything under control in sleepy Banyan Key, and is able to use his position as police chief to slip around with his high school sweetheart Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan) without her bad seed husband, Chris (Dean Cain), knowing about it.

It’s similarly simple to go along with the idea that, when Ann Merai is diagnosed with cancer and is told she has perhaps six months to live, Matt takes time out to help her. What becomes hard to take, however, is Matt’s decision to give nearly $500,000 he’s recovered in a drug bust to Ann Merai so she can go to Switzerland for experimental treatment, in the belief that he’ll get the money back as the beneficiary of her will.

It’s even more difficult to go along with the idea that, when Ann Merai and Chris’ home burns to the ground, leaving charred bodies inside, and Matt has been seen snooping around shortly before the blaze, the cop can cover his tracks before his estranged wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), the officer who just happens to be assigned to the case, gets hip to what he’s been up to.

Generosity injected with recklessness, rather than stupidity, makes Matt commit his blunder. It takes quick thinking and lightning moves for Matt to stay one step ahead of Alex, who will have to arrest him for arson and murder if she puts the pieces together, and the DEA, which suddenly wants its drug-bust booty. Under severe time pressure, Matt has to figure out what happened to Ann Merai and the cash, track down her doctor, cover up incriminating phone records, hoodwink Alex without raising her suspicion, battle a baddie while dangling from a hotel balcony and deal with some truths that are distinctly demoralizing.

As smoothly played by Washington, Matt does all this practically without breaking a sweat. Thesp creates a character who’s accustomed to getting his way, even if he’s always played for modest stakes until now; with his exception of his wife having left him, Matt has been able to control things and make them work to his advantage, so even his suddenly dire circumstances don’t faze him to the point of panic or hysteria.

Pic’s fundamental problem, however, is that the dilemma seems so contrived that, when the script tightens the vise, true tension doesn’t develop. There’s a certain amusement and sense of curiosity created by the spectacle of a man putting his neck in a noose, tightening it himself, kicking away the stool he’s standing on and still managing to survive, but a sense of dread and genuine jeopardy is missing. After a melodramatic climax, ending tidies things up rather too neatly and rosily.

All the same, individual scenes are craftily handled, such as some sexual charades between Matt and Ann Merai in the hot opening and a tense, innuendo-laden barroom standoff between Matt and Chris. The sultry Florida locations suggest a constant threat lurking behind the languid surfaces.

Displaying his customary strength with thesps, Franklin draws excellent work from Lathan, who sizzles in her intimate scenes but also makes Ann Merai perfectly opaque when required. Mendes strikes attitudes as needed, but there isn’t much sense of a complete character underneath. Cain is credible in the unexpected role of the abusive, suspicious husband. As Matt’s increasingly indispensable sidekick, John Billingsley, delivers variable comic relief.

Tech contributions are sturdy rather than slick.

Out of Time

Production

An MGM release of an Original Film/Monarch Pictures production. Produced by Neal H. Moritz, Jesse B'Franklin. Executive producers, Kevin Reidy, Jon Berg, Damien Saccani, Alex Gartner. Directed by Carl Franklin. Screenplay, Dave Collard.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints; Panavision widescreen), Theo Van de Sande; editor, Carole Kravetz Aykanian; music, Graeme Revell; production designer, Paul Peters; art director, Gary Kosko; set decorator, Kathryn Peters-Cardinale; costume designer, Sharen Davis; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Walter Anderson; supervising sound editor, Gregory Hedgepath; re-recording sound mixers, Matthew Iadarola, Gary Gegan; associate producers, Steve Traxler, Dan Genetti, Gina White; assistant director, Barry K. Thomas; second unit director, Robert Brown; second unit camera, Josh Bleibtreu; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at MGM screening room, L.A., Aug. 25, 2003. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Galas.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

Cast

Matt Lee Whitlock - Denzel Washington Alex Diaz Whitlock - Eva Mendes Ann Merai Harrison - Sanaa Lathan Chris Harrison - Dean Cain Chae - John Billingsley Tony Dalton - Robert Baker Cabot - Alex Carter
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