Fake Out

Denzel's a good cop caught in a bad situation. Again.

Out of Time, in which we're to believe 48-year-old Denzel Washington and 32-year-old Sanaa Lathan were high school sweethearts, demands its audience ignore all manner of implausibilities. Chief among them is the behavior of Washington's Matt Whitlock, chief of police in a tiny coastal town just outside of Miami who behaves less like a veteran cop than a smitten child doing stupid things for questionable people, which nearly ruins his career and ends his life. If Whitlock were to act like a real person caught in a similar situation and merely explain to someone--in this case, his estranged but still adoring wife, Alex (Training Day's Eva Mendes), a detective brought in to investigate a double homicide--what actually happened, there would be no film at all. All would be understood and cleared up, if not quite forgiven, and Out of Time would be out of reasons to exist.

Instead Matt manipulates faxes, intercepts calls, lies to federal officials, convinces his best friend to cover for him, chases down suspects and stolen cash and attempts to stay one step ahead of investigators, lest his good intentions lead him down a road to prison. Out of Timemarks the sixth time in his career Washington's played a cop; certainly he should know better than to make such rookie mistakes.

Out of Time, directed by Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress), is actually two movies: one a languid, bittersweet love story starring Washington and Brown Sugar's Lathan as doomed old flames playing with fire behind the back of Chris (ex-Superman Dean Cain), Lathan's volatile ex-jock husband; the other a breathlessly hyperactive thriller starring Washington and Mendes as a once-and-future couple reconciling over a crime in which all the evidence points to Matt as the guilty party. The two films intersect twice: in a smoldering arson-ravaged house where two crispy corpses lie in a melted mattress, and in a dead-end shack where a raging storm's lightning bolts illuminate secrets to which the audience was already privy. Franklin manages to reconcile the tones of both films like a con artist: He suckers us in to the story of a condemned romance, then gives us instead a wry, tense little thriller in which a man who believes himself smart discovers he's just a schmuck. And till the last 10 minutes, it's a gas.

It all feels reminiscent of Roger Donaldson's No Way Out, with Washington in the Kevin Costner role as the man trying to distract, deflect and mislead those who are moments away from putting him at the scene of the crime. Out of Timedoesn't have that film's kinky kicker--even in the driving rain you can see this ending in the far-off horizon--but lifts instead its style and tension. It's a lark, silly and taut and loaded down with zooming cameras and quick-cut edits and other pulpy conventions that signify playfulness more than pressure but keep us engaged and entertained. It's a movie about the thrill of movies, actually, seeing an innocent man put in jeopardy through his good deeds; Hitchcock made his legend out of cooking up popcorn like this and dipping it in gold.

Franklin, once a maker of "serious" and "thoughtful" thrillers grounded in the politics of race and social status, has of late given into the giddy, harmless potboiler. His High Crimes, one of those Ashley Judd thrillers indistinguishable from the rest of her filmography, provided the first bit of evidence he had detoured off the high road. That doesn't make Out of Timeany less enjoyable, only kind of meaningless--a thriller with delights that wear off before the credits even roll, a movie you might have watched on cable some Saturday afternoon and decided you didn't really waste that much time.

Washington, two years removed from flossing his teeth with Ethan Hawke in Training Day, is slumming--no heavy lifting required to break a sweat during the summer in Florida, where standing still will drench you. He's done this role before, and better, in such films as The Mighty Quinn, which was casual and elegant about its humor; its pacing was unhurried, its mystery more mystifying, its humidity more glamorous. (In Out of Time, everyone seems to be sweating the sweat of a thousand showers; they don't look sexy so much as in need of a bar of soap and a fresh change of clothes.) Here, the screenplay, by first-timer David Collard, is so enamored of its tricks and fake-outs it never stops to consider the people caught in them; they ultimately become cups in a shell game. Were it anyone but Washington above the title, we might not even care at all. The only thing keeping us engaged is his humor and grace under pressure; his Matt may have done some stupid things, like giving seized drug money to a girlfriend he believes is dying of cancer, but we root for him because, well, he is Denzel Washington.

 
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