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(2003) (Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes) (PG-13)

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Suspense/Thriller: A cop tries to clear his name and stay ahead of the law when he's framed for a double murder he didn't commit.
Matt Lee Whitlock (DENZEL WASHINGTON) is the local law in the small town of Banyan Key, Florida. All but technically divorced from his wife, Alex Diaz-Whitlock (EVA MENDES), Alex has been seeing Anne Merai Harrison (SANAA LATHAN) -- whose husband, Chris (DEAN CAIN), reportedly abuses her -- and recently executed a successful and high profile drug bust.

Matt's friend, Chae (JOHN BILLINGSLEY), the medical examiner, jokingly wants them to use the recovered money from that bust to go into business together. Matt, however, decides to bend the rules and loan it to a person in a life or death situation. When that money presumably goes up in flames in a house fire that kills two people, however, Matt finds himself in a mountain of trouble.

For not only is that money now gone, but varying levels of circumstantial evidence seem to point to him as the prime suspect. With the Feds soon arriving to pick up the now lost cash and Alex serving as the lead detective in the homicide investigation, Matt races to stay ahead of the game and cover his tracks as he tries to figure out what's happened.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Do you remember feeling the sense of urgency and dread as a kid when you did something wrong or lied and then tried to cover it up or avoid being caught? Or maybe as an adult you've been on the other side of the fence and enjoyed watching a youngster trying to wiggle his or her way out of such a predicament.

If so, you might just enjoy the somewhat similar feelings that may be experienced in watching "Out of Time." Unlike a child getting a disapproving look from a parent or being grounded, however, the stakes are a bit higher in this suspense thriller. Yet, those giddy feelings of watching someone scramble to stay ahead of being caught are ever-present and make this a taut and fairly terrific entry in the genre.

That's something of an accomplishment in today's day and age of increasingly savvy viewers who've grown accustomed to figuring out plot twists and turns long before they arrive. To their credit, writer Dave Collard (making his feature film debut) and director Carl Franklin ("High Crimes," "One True Thing") don't include too many of them and those that are present are sufficiently camouflaged.

Instead, they simply introduce the premise - of a small town chief of police realizing he's the likeliest suspect in a double murder - and then drop one complication after another into his path of trying to figure out what's going on before multiple levels of authorities finger him.

Rather than make the viewer question the protagonist's guilt - which would have turned the effort into a different and possibly more difficult sort of story to tell - Franklin and company want us to connect, worry about and empathize with the central character and his sudden and progressively worsening plight.

Somewhat surprisingly, they do that and more. And that's despite - or perhaps because of - the protagonist not being perfect. Although he's a well-regarded police chief, his marriage is on the rocks, he's having an affair with a married woman, and he decides to bend the rules and use some drug bust money to help a sick person.

The latter is the trump card that then causes the rest of his house of cards to come crashing down all around him. From that point on, the fun is in watching him squirm, scramble and otherwise do whatever he can and must to avoid any of them hitting him.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a talented and charismatic performer in the lead role, especially when it means it's that much easier to root for him. In that sense, Franklin was wise to team up for the second time - the first being "Devil in a Blue Dress - with the fabulous Denzel Washington ("Antwone Fisher," "Training Day").

Although the material doesn't tax the actor's strong thespian abilities too much, he seems the perfect match for the part and seems to be having a blast - or as much as one can considering the genre's requirements - in the role.

Playing his potential foil and nearly ex-wife is Eva Mendes ("2 Fast 2 Furious," "Training Day"). Perfectly embodying the right combination of detective smarts and spousal annoyance and then suspicion at being partnered with him, she's good in the part.

Additional cogs in the thriller mechanism are presented by Sanaa Lathan ("Love and Basketball," "Brown Sugar") as something of a femme fatale and Dean Cain ("The Broken Hearts Club," TV's "Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman") decently playing against type as her abusive husband.

John Billingsley ("White Oleander," "The Glass House") is terrific as the colorful medical examiner who assists the protagonist. He's good and entertaining enough that he has an outside shot of earning some award nominations come that time of year.

Despite a few occasional plot problems and the need for some suspension of disbelief, this is an entertaining thriller fashioned in the mold of the way they used to make such films. With a smart script, good performances and Franklin's solid effort and vision behind the camera, "Out of Time" is a blast to watch and thus rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 12, 2003 / Posted October 3, 2003

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