The welcome surprise of this sexy thriller directed by Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) is that it's funny. Subtly funny to slapstick funny, hanging on to its dramatic tension all the way. Hard to say whether the clever script by David Collard would have gotten such stylish treatment from any other director. But there can be no doubt the film's oddball mix of sex farce, hard-boiled detective story, steamy Southern gothic and action-adventure romp wouldn't have turned out nearly so intriguing without its leading man, Denzel Washington.
Washington departed from earnest roles and played a full-blown bad guy in Training Day, and won an Oscar for his efforts. In Out of Time, he's Matt, the not-quite-innocent-wrongly-accused, flawed but lovable police chief of sleepy Banyan Key, Fla. , population 1,384, just outside of Miami. He fishes off the deck of his rusty, floating house and wears shorts to work. He's buff and friendly and knocks back beers at the local bar with co-workers and friends in this village where everybody knows everybody else.
Matt's troubles begin when a high- school girlfriend, Ann (Sanaa Lathan), returns home with her abusive husband, a former pro football player (Dean Cain). Ann moves in on Matt in the film's opening scene, knocking the poor guy, who's in the process of being divorced by his wife Alex (Eva Mendes), right off his feet. A secretive affair ensues with hapless Matt hungry for companionship but still in love with his soon-to-be ex-wife.
When Ann reveals to Matt that she has lung and liver cancer and can't afford the expensive experimental treatments in Switzerland that are her only hope, a plot is hatched. He'll lift a big bundle of drug money evidence in a DEA case that's been languishing in the police department safe, and give it to her. Presumably it will be years before the case is finished with appeals and the money is released, and by then Ann will have died, leaving her $1 million life insurance policy to Matt.
But the plot goes awry when Ann and her sleazy husband are turned into charcoal in a mysterious house fire on the night she is set to escape. Matt, meanwhile, is seen creeping around in her back yard, has lost the DEA cash, and becomes the obvious arson/murder suspect since Ann has named him beneficiary of her life insurance policy. The detective, down from Miami to investigate the crime, is none other than Alex, whose suspicions about the man she still adores are mostly concealed but growing hour by hour.
What ensues is a cunningly timed dart-and-chase with Matt covering his tracks frantically, trying to stay a step ahead of the murder investigation while also trying to solve it himself. The plotting is impeccable, the writing smart and clean, and the acting consistently strong.
Shot around Miami in Boca Grande and Cortez, the setting sets the film apart from most Hollywood cop thrillers. Instead of gritty Los Angeles streets, we have dusty back highways lined with ragged palms. At night, fog rolls in giving the town of Banyan Key a look of claustrophobic mystery. Sweat rolls like rain off beautiful faces.
It could be argued that Mendes' tight, form-fitting wardrobe hardly befits a homicide detective, but that would be missing the point. Her character has authority despite her lusciousness, not because of it. She stares down Washington with her cat eyes, backing him into corner after corner. John Billingsley gives a hilarious performance as Matt's sidekick, a burned-out medical investigator. And Washington treats every turn, every plot twist, with a freshly nuanced response. He's pathetic, slick, horny, terrified, broken and bent back into shape. We can see him think; we can see him work up his courage, then plunge into the abyss.
Expect surprises, and in spite of the PG-13 rating, expect some surprisingly vivid sex scenes.
Tinseltown, Cinemark 16