When we last saw Denzel Washington on screen, it was in "Training Day" and he was the best thing in an exaggerated crime story that took itself much too seriously. Now, in 2003's "Out of Time," Washington is also the best thing in an exaggerated crime story, but it's one that never takes itself too seriously. "Out of Time" is an old-time, traditional thriller with the kind of convoluted plot that's straight out of forties' noir. It's all the better for it.
Washington teams up again with director Carl Franklin, with whom he worked so well on another noir project, 1995's "Devil in a Blue Dress." In "Out of Time" the pair come up with another relaxed yet suspenseful mystery. It's not as atmospheric as "Devil" nor is it peopled with as varied and memorable a supporting cast, but it's got much the same trappings of noir style, complete with a good man being lured into a web of crime and deceit; a multitude of chases, dark corners, and larcenous villains; plenty of surprises; and the essential femme fatale.
If you're familiar with things like "Double Indemnity," "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Maltese Falcon," or "Laura," you'll probably see the plot twists coming in "Out of Time" a mile away, but it doesn't make them any the less fun to follow. It's rather like watching your favorite old detective film more than once. You know what's going to happen, but you watch it anyway.
This one is set in the present, but it has the same laid-back feel that director Franklin created in "Devil in a Blue Dress." Using a similarly jazz-inflected background score and throwback opening titles, Franklin creates an initially low-key tale where the action starts slowly and then builds at an increasingly faster tempo. However, I can't say too much about the plot or I'd spoil the movie's surprises for you, so I'll just mention as much as the studio tells us on the DVD keep case.
The hero of the piece is Matt Whitlock (Washington), Police Chief of the tiny Florida town of Banyon Key. He's bright and charming and capable of doing more with his career if money were his only object, but it's not so bad a life he's chosen for himself, after all. The town is pleasant, the citizens respect him, and he can fish off the back porch of his house. But all is not perfect. The Chief is in the midst of a messy divorce from his beautiful wife, Alex Diaz Whitlock (Eva Mendes), who has just made the rank of homicide detective; and the Chief is carrying on an affair with another beautiful woman, an old high school sweetheart, Ann Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), a lady now married to a pro football quarterback, Chris Harrison (Dan Cain), who's not too happy at the moment about being cut from his team. You can imagine how this husband would feel if he found out about his wife and the Chief!
If this weren't enough, however, the film's major conflict develops when Ann discovers she's dying of cancer and has only a few weeks to live; and she tells the Chief she loves him so much, she's naming him the beneficiary in a million-dollar life insurance policy she's carrying. The Chief, in turn, is prompted by her kindhearted act into doing one of his own. He "borrows" close to half a million dollars in narcotics money he's got locked up in his safe as evidence in a drug bust and gives it to Ann for her cancer treatments. Thus, a good man does a bad thing for a good reason.
But then, lo and behold, Ann and her husband are burned to death in a fire, along with the money the Chief gave her, a fire started by an arsonist, making it a double murder, which the Chief's estranged wife investigates. And, suddenly, what with the affair and the life insurance and all, the signs are pointing directly at the Chief as the prime suspect in the case. Furthermore, to make matters worse, the DEA unexpectedly wants the drug money as evidence in a big trial they're devising. You think the Chief is on the spot, or what?
And that's just the movie's first third or so, which, despite the complications, tends to drag. But after this long build up, the action kicks in and the suspense mounts accordingly, the Chief keeping just one step ahead of his detective wife, his own men, and the DEA. The whole thing is preposterous, of course, but, as I've said, no more so than any of the old noir mysteries of the forties and fifties.
Washington is a pleasure to watch, as always, and this time he's got a close friend who's equally engaging, the town's medical examiner, Chae, played by John Billingsley. Apparently, the role of Chae was supposed to have been played by an Asian actor, but Billingsley got the part instead and the character's name stuck. In any case, he's the Chief's best friend, a humorous, unpretentious guy, a kind of comic sidekick in the manner of Tom Arnold in "True Lies." He's the Chief's only confidant in a world where no one can be trusted. Maybe not even Chae.
A fight scene on a balcony is pretty harrowing; subsequent chases are well executed; and various suspense sequences are appropriately gripping. The film is meant to be fun and not to be taken too much in earnest, so it works its charms effectively. Washington is not going to be nominated for another Oscar here, it's not that kind of picture, but he's just as appealing as he's ever been. More exciting than smart or chic or witty, "Out of Time" is relaxing, delightfully old-fashioned entertainment.
At first glance the picture on this disc looks extraordinarily good. It's after a few minutes that you begin to notice that things are not quite right. The screen size is certainly not at fault; its generous 2.17:1 anamorphic dimensions approximate its theatrical release measurements. The bit rate can't be faulted, either, as its high numbers indicate a commendably low compression rate. Nor are the colors less than bright and vivid. But then the nagging little details creep in. You look out the window or around the room, and you notice the movie's colors are, in fact, too bright compared to real-life. You notice the edges on most objects are slightly jagged and rough, with some faint color bleed-through. You notice the moiré effects manifest in Venetian blinds and other closely spaced horizontal lines. You notice the light grain that's everywhere. It's never distracting, actually, except when you're looking for it, so take my advice: Never be a critic.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction does an excellent job in its left-to-right stereo spread and in its natural tonal balance. The rest of the sonic properties are respectable as well, if not up to state-of-the-art standards. Frequency response, dynamic range and impact, transient quickness, and surround effects are all at the service of the movie but not much more. This is as it should be, the sound never drawing attention to itself. The bass, for instance, is mostly missing until it's called upon to do something useful. The rear channels are mostly quiet until a barking dog or a sea bird or a falling object is necessary in the back of the listening environment. It works out pretty well.
In terms of special features, this "Special Edition" is not particularly special. But there are a couple of entertaining items. There is, of course, the expected audio commentary, this one with director Franklin. There's an all-too-brief, twelve-minute promotional featurette, "Out of Time: Crime Scene," in which the director and actors tell you how great the movie is and why. And there are profiles of the movie's main characters in case you missed something in the story. But it's the two outtakes I found the most fun, serious scenes gone haywire. Then there are screen tests for Sanaa Lathan and Dean Cain that contain two and three scenes each; an image gallery; a widescreen theatrical trailer; more trailers for other MGM releases; and thirty-two scene selections. Spoken language and subtitle options are English, French, and Spanish.
The movie's best line comes from Chae, describing the sour look on a guy's face: "You're like the love child of Barney Fife and Joe Friday." It tends to sum up the tone of the picture. Except from Chae there's little real humor in the film, yet the whole thing is so easygoing and casual, you can never get annoyed with its absurd situations. We know it's a conventional suspense thriller, so we easily suspend our disbelief and go along with it without a fight. If you can get past those first thirty minutes, that is.