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Racing against the clock 

The new Denzel Washington film, Out of Time, suggests something about how far Hollywood and American popular culture have traveled in a generation. The writer and director may very well have intended simply to make a taut, exciting thriller celebrating the heritage of classic film noir. However, their movie, inadvertently or not, provides a curious and occasionally refreshing version of that long sought ideal, the colorblind society. Mixing race and ethnicity with utter insouciance, it manages the tricky feat of dealing with sex, violence, and crime without ever employing its racial elements to intensify its actions and emotions.

            One of a handful of African American performers to cross the racial divide in contemporary film, Denzel Washington in Out of Time takes on the sort of part that could just as easily feature a white actor. He plays Matt Lee Whitlock, the chief of a four-man police force in the little hamlet of Banyan Key, Florida.

            Already encumbered with personal and professional problems, Matt finds himself in a complicated tangle of danger, deception, and treachery. About to be served with final divorce papers by his wife Alex (Eva Mendes), a detective on the Miami Police Force, he carries on a torrid affair with a married woman (Sanaa Lathan), whose husband apparently suspects the truth about the relationship.

            Naturally, he compounds his personal difficulties by violating the law. His lover Ann persuades him to make her a temporary loan of a large stash of impounded drug money he's holding in his office safe. When someone torches Ann's house, killing her and her husband, a neighbor sees Matt lurking outside. Her vague identification, along with a gradual accumulation of additional clues, like phone records and computer data, initiates a series of steps toward his incrimination.

            Searching for the actual culprit himself, while also trying to cover up or obliterate the damning information, he finds he must also somehow stall the federal authorities who demand that he turn over the drug money as evidence for a trial. As if all that weren't enough to drive a desperate man beyond his limits, he discovers that his soon-to-be ex-wife has been assigned to supervise the arson and murder investigation.

            The script places its protagonist in a situation that multiplies the complexity of the usual film noir. The form's characteristic themes of sexual betrayal and guilt temporarily disappear while the embattled chief attempts to elude the official investigation, outmaneuver the feds, find out who set him up, and recover the missing dough.

            In addition to its connection to the dark tradition of noir, the movie's title underlines its particular debt to The Big Clock and its remake, No Way Out, both of which deal with a man forced to prove his innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence against him. In addition, the chief, like the characters in those movies, must fight time, moving in effect counterclockwise against the inevitable progress of time and an implacable fate. He quite literally runs out of time.

            Despite the complication of the polished mechanism that propels the plot, the picture moves with a nicely controlled urgency, building its tension through a number of slick devices. It allows for some emotional depth in the relationship between Matt and Alex and even a considerable amount of comedy in the chief's behavior and in some of the characters who surround him. Although any wan veteran of the double darkness of the theater and the genre will almost immediately figure out the central mystery, the picture for the most part plays fair with both the cop and the audience, maintaining its generally entertaining contrivance from beginning to end.

            The racial configuration of the cast demonstrates a kind of diversity new to Hollywood. The African-American chief of police, married to a Hispanic woman, conducts an affair with an African-American woman who is herself married to a white man, and nobody, even in a little town in the Deep South, raises an eyebrow about the interracial relationships or the unusual ethnic mixture. Whatever the authenticity of that particular premise, the script's vision hints hopefully at a growing acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity in society itself.

            Denzel Washington belongs to that group of talented African Americans, which includes Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Laurence Fishburne, who now can be cast by a formerly reluctant Hollywood system to play roles that in the past were the exclusive province of white stars. In Out of Time he once again demonstrates his versatility. The last cop he played, for example, was the bad guy in Training Day, a completely different sort of policeman from Matt Whitlock, in a terrific performance that won him an Academy Award. Although hardly a masterpiece, the picture benefits immensely from his presence, which helps make the contrivance of the plot hum with the appropriate excitement and the proper tension of its tradition.

Out of Time, starring Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes, Sanaa Lathen, Dean Cain, John Billingsley, Robert Baker, Alex Carter, Antoni Carone, Terry Loughlin, Nora Dunn; written by Dave Collard; directed by Carl Franklin. Cinemark Tinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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