Out of Time represents a long-awaited reunion for Carl Franklin and Denzel Washington, who first did the director-actor thing in the 1995 movie Devil in a Blue Dress, a period P.I. flick that was just as notable for drenching an irresistible Denzel in high-color film noir as it was for showcasing Don Cheadle to a larger audience than he’d ever had before. Washington is less likable here as the chief of a four-man police department in sleepy Banyan Key, Fla., mostly because he’s ensnared in the potboiler plot from the beginning instead of easing into it.

Washington plays Matthias Whitlock, an affable, drink-a-beer-on-the-job sort who is screwing his high school sweetheart — now married to a washed-up NFL player, another classmate — on the sly while crossing his fingers that his estranged wife comes to her senses and moves back in. The sweetheart, Anne Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan, wearing a circa-1990 Mariah Carey fright wig), ends up dead in a suspicious house fire days after making Matt the beneficiary of her million-dollar life insurance policy. That’s not a good thing when Matt’s phone numbers are all over her phone records and he’s sneaked her nearly $500,000 of seized drug money to pay for an experimental cancer treatment. Enter the wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), a gung-ho Miami detective with whom Matt finds it impossible to communicate, also not a good thing when she’s investigating a homicide that in all likelihood he’ll go down for.

Matt’s scramble to stay one step ahead of Alex’s quick mind and the mounting evidence against him makes up the bulk of the movie, which trades tiny suspense victories for any overall sense of nail-biting thrill. For instance, Matt jockeying the fax machine in an effort to swap real phone logs with doctored ones, and a little old lady eyewitness pointing out Matt as looking an awful lot like a guy she saw lurking around Anne Merai’s house and then labeling every black man she sees as a possible suspect. This is the sort of movie where everything is obvious, from the fact that Anne Merai is a practiced liar who will get Matt in big-time trouble to the harried happy ending.

But give first-time screenwriter Dave Collard credit for drawing Alex as something a lot more entertaining than a simple careerist man-eater.

There are better “wrong man” films out there (including the mother of them all, Hitchcock’s aptly titled The Wrong Man, which starred Henry Fonda as a falsely accused musician), but few of them have the good fortune to have Denzel Washington as their leading man.

Director Franklin makes paint-by-numbers look closer to art than most. The film is rife with soft humor as well as louder amusement in the person of Matt’s medical examiner pal Chae (John Billingsley), a prototypical sidekick who always appears at the right moment with the right wisecrack.

While Out of Time is 100 percent point A-to-point B action thriller, it does escape the doldrums for one reason, and one reason only. If Chae isn’t around to depressurize his friend, the movie becomes too anxious. Chae’s presence means that Matt is not waging a solitary war, that he has somebody on his side keeping an eye on the bomb ticking in the basement. Solitary-man movies can be deadened by the sheer pressure of whether or not the hero will ever find anybody to believe his story. By providing Matt with a rusty valve with which to let off steam, the balance between right and wrong, fair and unfair is restored, and the leading man can go about the business of exonerating himself with the confidence that somewhere, somebody trusts him.

Meanwhile, playing his billionth Johnny Law character, Washington is good as ever in a 180-degree turn from his Oscar-winning stint as a cop dirtier than a chimney sweep in Training Day. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Washington, and he so rarely disappoints that Mendes’ successful first effort at something other than house bimbo is an unexpected freebie.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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