Languorous cops in Out of Time

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Oct. 3 2003 7:17 PM

Dead Calm

Washington is the cat's pajamas in Out of Time.

Stil from Out of Time
Lathan and Washington pause for a beat in Time

Does anyone take a big, ripe close-up better than Denzel Washington? It's not just that he's, well, let's face it, a beautiful man. It's that there's so much teasing in his stillness. He knows he's the cat's pajamas, and there's a faint whiff of entitlement in the economy of his movements and the deliberateness of his manner. Maybe a touch of resentment, too, for the insults he had to endure on his way to movie stardom: Nowadays, Washington won't be rushed.

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In the first 45 minutes of Out of Time (MGM), the star and the director, Carl Franklin, act as if they have all the time in the world. Washington plays Matt Lee Whitlock, chief of police in Banyan Key, a small town not too far from Miami. Before the credits, he makes his leisurely rounds, then reclines on his office chair sipping a beer. He takes a call from the dishy Anne Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) reporting a prowler outside; when he shows up at her bungalow, the two playact a scene that makes the mock rape near the start of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) seem polite.

This easy, sultry life appears to suit Whitlock—and Washington—just dandy. If you've seen Franklin and Washington's last collaboration, the marvelously languorous Walter Mosley adaptation Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), you might be prepared for a careful, deliberate whodunit in which vibe trumps the mechanics of the plot. That's the prevailing tone here: low and slow. It's set by Whitlock's melancholy as he contemplates life without his soon-to-be ex-wife Alex (Eva Mendes), now a Miami-based detective, and by his sadness when he learns that his married lover, Anne Merai, has terminal cancer. Whitlock keeps everything—even Anne Merai's abusive husband (Dean Cain), who's beginning to suspect an extramarital affair—beautifully contained. 

You would hardly guess that 45 or so minutes into Out of Time the tempo is going to change—and that the fun will be watching the unflappable star as he breathlessly dashes from place to place, trying to catch up with the bad guys and elude the cops. It's a great ride. The tight, clever script by Dave Collard owes a lot to the thriller No Way Out (1987) and its superior predecessor The Big Clock (1948): Each revolves around a man helping to run an investigation that he knows is going to lead, ultimately, to him—and must frantically keep his own team from finding out how deep he's in. In this case, the principal investigator is Whitlock's ex, Alex, and the elegance with which Collard and Franklin have their hero charging in and out of offices, stairways, and—this being the 21st century—searching computer files while trying to maintain his composure (his ex would notice quickly if something's off) would get a grinning salute from a master farceur like Feydeau. They've also given Whitlock a slobby, beer-swilling, sardonic sidekick, Chae (John Billingsley), whose affection for his master is half Walter Brennan, half Gollum: hilarious, but just creepy enough to keep you on guard.

I reckon 90 of the movie's 106 minutes are thriller heaven. The windup, alas, isn't in the same league: Both humdrum and confusingly staged, it pales beside the volcanic climaxes of Franklin's OneFalse Move (1992) and Devil in a Blue Dress. Still, I love those huge close-ups of Washington, with Theo van de Sande's camera slightly cocked and the image suffused in Everglades colors and bric-a-brac. The tightness of the frame is like the tightness of the vise in which the hero is caught. And there aren't too many faces that could hold that camera as well as Washington's. You see in his eyes that he needs time, he needs space, and he needs, above all, to maintain his preternatural cool.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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