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'Out of Time'

Times Staff Writer

One of the great things about Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler once wrote, was that he had taken murder out of the parlor and dropped it into the alley back where it belonged. Like his predecessor, Chandler wrote the kind of pulp fiction in which men and women breathe and bleed like real people — and not just on Persian carpets. For both, the mysteries of character were more important than the mechanics of crime, which is why both men were more than mere masters of the genre.

One of the great things about both Hammett and Chandler is that before they pulled the plug on their characters they usually gave their victims a pulse, even the lowlifes. That thought flickered through my mind as I was watching Carl Franklin's low-key reunion with Denzel Washington, "Out of Time." At first glance, this thoroughly unremarkable crime story doesn't have all that much going for it beyond its professionalism. But despite the standard-issue ingredients — the palm trees, the femme fatale, the dirty money — there's something about the movie that sets it apart from the usual thriller. Franklin may not be a master of genre like Hammett and Chandler, but he knows that it means something when a character throws a punch or fires a gun.

"Out of Time" was written by Dave Collard, who, despite the title of his first produced screenplay, poses as of yet no threat to Elmore Leonard or Scott Frank, authors of the similar-sounding "Out of Sight." Collard writes fine chitchat, and most of what comes out of his characters sounds unforced, even when the bones of his story emit a familiar creak. An updated noir, the film hinges on the dilemma of a man who, having been hoisted on his own petard, spends most of the story trying to wiggle free. That's certainly the setup in "The Big Clock," a 1948 studio thriller in which Ray Milland plays a magazine editor who's racing to solve a murder — tick, tock — for which he soon becomes the prime suspect.

Like Milland's character, Washington's small-town police chief, Matt Lee Whitlock, finds himself trying to solve a murder that leads straight to him. And, just like in "The Big Clock," it's one man's cheating heart and two women who gum up the works. It would be unfair to say more other than the two women here are the chief's recently estranged wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), a pouty beauty who's come up fast in the Miami police force, and Whitlock's lover, Ann (Sanaa Lathan). Married to an embittered ex-NFL player named Chris (Dean Cain), Ann comes loaded with trouble, but Whitlock thinks she's worth it. It doesn't take long to figure out if he's right, but twists, plot or sex-wise, aren't the point here and don't account for the film's humble pleasures.

Unsurprisingly, Washington is its most immodest pleasure. In 1995, the actor delivered one of his most relaxed, least guarded performances in Franklin's under-appreciated adaptation of Walter Mosley's "Devil in a Blue Dress." Whitlock's a mere suggestion compared to the character Washington played in the earlier film, but then "Out of Time" is just a suggestion of a movie compared to "Devil." That's to be expected; Mosley exists on a more rarefied plane than Collard and he's after more than just thrills. That's led some purists to complain that Mosley brings too much self-conscious meaning to his work, but good pulp always signifies. If nothing else, good pulp makes it clear that it's never the gun that matters — it's whether the hand holding the gun trembles. Mosley gets this; so does Franklin.

It's clear from all of Mosley's Easy Rawlins books, and not just "Devil in a Blue Dress," that it's equally important if the hand holding the gun is white or black. Not because Mosley is black, but because race matters. Franklin's talent and strong sense of moral purpose certainly transcend color, and it's worth noting that his own favorite title among the movies he's directed is the tear-stained "One True Thing," (which couldn't be further from the shadow-strafed world in which he often works. But for all that film's fine moments, it's undeniable that in Franklin's most powerful features — "Devil" and his sizzling thriller "One False Move," a movie that tore me up far more than "One True Thing" — race doesn't not matter.

Pulled out and played up to its potential, the story of a black police chief caught in a mousetrap down South could have given Franklin the kind of subtext that allowed him to take "Devil" and "One False Move" beyond genre. As he proved with his military potboiler "High Crimes," the director brings a little more heft, a little more depth to the job than many Hollywood hires, but he needs more than forensics. "Out of Time" doesn't give Franklin much to work with, but he wrings meaning from how Whitlock's walk changes as his world closes in around him, and the way the orange Florida light bathes the characters in a warm embrace, then in a fiery glow. And with the character actor John Billingsley, who turns in the film's best performance as Whitlock's close friend, Franklin also proves he doesn't need stars to shine.

'Out of Time'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content, violence and some language.

Times guidelines: The language and sex aren't any racier than most late-night television.

Denzel Washington ... Matt Lee Whitlock
Eva Mendes ... Alex Diaz Whitlock
Sanaa Lathan ... Ann Merai Harrison
Dean Cain ... Chris Harrison
John Billingsley ... Chae

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presents an Original Film Monarch Pictures production, released by MGM Distribution Co. Director Carl Franklin. Writer Dave Collard. Producers Neal H. Moritz, Jesse B'Franklin. Director of photography Theo Van de Sande. Production designer Paul Peters. Editor Carole Kravetz Aykanian. Costume designer Sharen Davis. Music Graeme Revell. Casting Mali Finn. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minute.

In general release.

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