Out of Time

(2003) *** Pg-13
114 min. MGM/UA. Director: Carl Franklin. Cast: Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes, Sanaa Lathan, Dean Cain, John Billingsley.

Out of Time may not be terribly ambitious, but it is...nifty. With an above-average (if highly incredible) premise and the identifiable Everyman stylings of Denzel Washington, Carl Franklin executes a tight and tense thriller with a strong sense of place.

The place is Florida's Gulf Coast, where Washington's bored but lusty small-town police chief Matthias Whitlock presides over little more than his own affair with a sultry married woman named Ann (Sanaa Lathan). Her husband Chris (Dean Cain) spells trouble for Matthias, but Chris is not the only one: soon, a head-spinning twist of fate means Matthias's own police force, including his detective ex-wife Alex (Eva Mendes), is heading in his general direction for a murder rap. Though Mendes comes off as J-Lo-light (circa Out of Sight), Cain and Lathan hold their own in respective duets with Washington: Cain goes toe-to-toe in a slyly scripted verbal brawl, and Lathan ably plays a broad emotional spectrum in her love-hate match-ups.

Twisting the typical complication of a fugitive trying to prove his innocence, screenwriter Dave Collard positions his seriously compromised hero to solve the crime while simultaneously obstructing justice under the noses of his own colleagues. With plot sleight-of-hand, Collard keeps Matthias, barely, one step ahead of the investigation. One typically taut sequence has Matthias racing against a fax machine which promises to spit out incriminating evidence to an impatient Alex; like the duelling computer sequence from Clear and Present Danger, Collard's scene creates information-age suspense.

Franklin takes care of the all-too-human, flop-sweat suspense, like an expertly orchestrated, vertiginous battle from the dangling balcony of a motel room. With effective use of low-angle shots, handheld camera, and jerky zooms, Franklin tightens tension and heightens anger. By use of a flavorful jazz score by Graeme Revell and by virtue of John Billingslea's old-fashioned, character-actor turn as Matthias's slovenly aide-de-camp, Out of Time improbably brings to mind superior films like Anatomy of a Murder. For--despite its moral grayness and impressive credits--Out of Time is little more than an efficient potboiler taking its premise to entertainingly illogical extremes. Though Out of Time seems more suited to the lazy days of summer, I'll take it all the same.

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