Out of Time

October, 2003, Thriller

Good thrillers, like great thoroughbreds, have to come out of the starting gate strong without detracting from their ability to go the distance. Fortunately, a high degree of plausibility isn't required, (remember the chance encounter that triggers Hitchcock's North by Northwest?) but once in motion, the action has to create sufficient credibility   to sustain and then enhance the audience's suspension of disbelief. Of course, an appealing hero or heroine helps in this regard, but perhaps the best ingredient in this effort involves a truly despicable villain--and once again, James Mason's supercilious spy in Northwest provides an excellent example. Journeyman director Carl Franklin, and the always appealing Denzel Washington, (who worked together so effectively in the badly-overlooked 1995 crime drama Devil In a Blue Dress) try to make lighting strike again in this lush remake of The Big Clock ('47) --already re-visited by Kevin Costner in No Way Out ('87)--and it would be nice to say they've succeeded. But as a carnival barker says, "close, but no cigar".

The basic plot device used in all three of these movies is the same; the hero's marital infidelity places him in a situation that makes framing him for a murder very easy. As he races to find the real killer without disclosing his indiscretion, his increasingly frantic efforts to extricate himself gradually manage to implicate him even further until a seemingly impossible set of circumstances exist, despite the fact that the audience now knows, with absolute certainty, that the villain has arranged the set-up. Charles Laughton's tyrannical newspaper publisher did it to perfection in The Big Clock and Will Patton's sexually-uptight government bureaucrat turned the plot's screws with malign glee and determination in No Way Out

Despite some wonderfully florid cinematography that effectively conveys the lush decadence of the Florida Keys, Franklin and the likeable Washington are undone by a poor choice of villains, a confusing exposition of the basic relationships among the characters, and an escalating cycle of devices in the subsequent storyline that tip this one over that all-important brink of plausibility. 

As Washington's estranged wife, Eva Mendes manages to convey a sense of intelligence and humor even as she wears a succession of outfits two sizes to small for her obviously ripe frame, while the hero's high school sweetheart and current squeeze provides sufficient carnal attraction to make Washington's dalliance plausible. But when he proclaims his undying love for his wife while making love to his mistress before risking his career moments later as a gesture of his feelings for her, the squirming begins-too much has been tossed in the pot too early, and when the proverbial manure hits the oscillator, the tenuous but crucial hold on the audience's sense of credibility has been shattered. 

It doesn't help that Washington's subsequent efforts to extricate himself hinge on boringly repetitious uses of his cell phone and office fax, and hinge on the fact that he's a sheriff with an estranged wife who's the lead detective on the case. This excess of coincidence, paired with Washington's inadequately explained motivation rides the movie right off the rails.

Familiar character actor John Billingsley shines as Washington's medical examiner buddy, and their exchanges contain the kind of clever banter that allow audiences to put up some of the film's other shortcomings, but it's too little, too late here; despite excellent locations, a time-tested premise and Washington's charisma, by the time the final credits roll, audiences aren't "Out of Time"--they're out of patience.       

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