3-1/2 stars (out of 4)
After "Training Day" and "Devil in a Blue Dress," Denzel Washington may not be the king of modern movie noir, but he acts as if he'd like to try the job - maybe become the modern equivalent of a Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum.
"Out of Time," Washington's latest star vehicle, is another fancy cop thriller, set in present-day Florida, but it's also archetypal noir. Washington plays a classic Hitchcockian "wrong man": smart but emotionally beleaguered police chief Matt Lee Whitlock, who loses his wife, becomes an adulterer and winds up sinking into a maelstrom of guilt and peril. It's a twisty, hell-for-leather crime thriller, and director Carl Franklin gives it all the slick, modern trimmings. But it's a movie that also takes one of the classic noir plots - a man investigating a murder in which all the clues point to himself - and gives it a crisp, racy makeover.
Washington's Whitlock is a nice guy dropping into a nightmare. Split unwillingly from his dazzling wife and co-worker, Alex Diaz Whitlock (Eva Mendes), he's succumbed to the red-hot charms of Ann Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), who's married to local sleazebag Chris (Dean Cain), a guy Matt loathes. But when Ann takes Matt along to a hospital, where she's told she has cancer and little time left, Matt makes a crucial bad choice. He lifts some drug-bust money from the police safe to help Ann get desperation medical aid, believing her promise that she'll replace it pronto with some suspicious prepaid insurance benefits.
Adultery is one thing for a hip chief, but theft is another - and even worse is murder. Matt soon is staring at hell's escalator with no apparent exit. The Harrison house burns down, two unrecognizable bodies are discovered, and the chief finds himself one step ahead of his own cops and colleagues - including a DEA agent who suddenly wants the money back - all the while investigating a crime where he knows he'll eventually be the main suspect, as soon as his homicide-detective ex-wife turns up the phone records, the insurance policy, the eyewitnesses or any of dozens of other clues pointing straight at him.
What follows is an utterly unbelievable but often delightful nightmare chase in which Matt keeps pirouetting away each time the trap is about to snap shut. On he goes, destroying computer records, jamming fax machines, fast-talking his way out of the DEA's clutches, ducking or decking witnesses - all while running his own investigation into what happened.
Alex is on his trail, unknowingly at first. But Matt has one ally: drinking buddy and cheerful medical investigator Chai (John Billingsley), who quickly realizes his pal is in a jam and keeps covering for him. "Out of Time" is a comedy disguised as a thriller, but Chai is the only purely comic character. He's a sloppy, laid-back wisecracker who keeps dropping zingers while he helps Matt blow smoke. It's a dynamite turn, and Billingsley, who looks (and acts) a bit like Jim Belushi crossed with Gene Wilder, seems to nails every laugh possible. It's the kind of unexpected but sizzling showcase turn that Wilder had in "Bonnie and Clyde," or the one Don Cheadle landed in another Denzel Washington noir, "Devil in a Blue Dress."
"Out of Time" doesn't really make sense, but it's fun to watch. Director Franklin, writer Dave Collard (in his first feature script) and the actors play with the plot's logical miscues; they turn "Out of Time" into a movie that's as much comedy as suspense thriller, as much romance as comedy. Actually, "Out of Time" offers pleasure in so many ways that it seems quibbling to complain about the story.
Did we ever worry that much about whether Hitchcock, Robert Siodmak or writer Cornell Woolrich made sense? (Sometimes they didn't.) Bad dreams create their own logic, and in some ways it doesn't matter that Matt behaves so foolishly, or that he is able to so amazingly outwit the police and the DEA while juggling clues and slipping out of the exits.
Washington is a good center for this type of movie. He's able to simultaneously project intelligence, strength and vulnerability while also revealing the devilish streak that took over "Training Day."
Washington played a killer in his first big movie role, in "A Soldier's Story" - like the old noir heroes Bogey, Richard Widmark and George Raft, he played villain and then switched - and he can get a cunning, menacing edge that makes him a model bad guy. That helps his performance here, and it also helps that he's a black police chief in a white town, with a white sidekick, because he's able to play a natural outsider, seemingly both menacing and menaced.
As for the rest of the cast, Mendes and Lathan have looks and charisma to burn, Cain is effectively nasty, and the stone-faced cops who surround Matt as his dilemmas multiply provide an unnerving human backdrop.
Director Franklin has been good at both realistic dramas ("Laurel Avenue," "One True Thing") and semi-realistic thrillers ("Blue Dress," "One False Move"), but he's better with the thrillers. Released from the need to justify action, he's able to create highly convincing characters in a charmingly unconvincing plot. Perhaps he's the modern noir king, though if he is, "One False Move" remains his best, most uncompromised thriller.
The basic gimmick of "Out of Time" was most famously used in the 1948 noir "The Big Clock," based on poet Kenneth Fearing's novel, with Ray Milland as a crime-magazine editor spearheading the investigation that points (wrongly) straight at him. And it was recycled in the 1987 thriller "No Way Out," with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. It's a classic nightmare, of course, like all those dreams about taking a test without studying, or acting in a play without knowing your lines.
But in "Out of Time," where it's all played basically for laughs and over-the-top thrills, the idea works better. It's easy to pick out the potholes of collapsed logic, but it's probably better to sit back and enjoy it. Who cares if it never could have happened? For a while, Franklin and his very smart cast convince us that it did.
"Out of Time"
Directed by Carl Franklin; written by Dave Collard; photographed by Theo Van de Sande; edited by Carole Kravetz Aykanian; production designed by Paul Peters; music by Graeme Revell; produced by Neal H. Moritz, Jesse B'Franklin. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures release; opens Friday, Oct. 3. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, violence and some language).
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