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Out of Time (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 03 October 2003
In case you haven't noticed, in the last 15, 20 years, a subgenre of crime novel has arisen down there in Florida. Launched by Elmore Leonard, who's set many of his novels there, the late Charles Willeford, who wrote several outstanding Florida-based crime stories, and the still-busy Carl Hiaasen and James W. Hall. Most of these novels have a similar flavor, so to speak; they take place out in the bright Florida sun, often down in the Keys; the central characters are often cops at the end of their tether, or private eyes (or semi-private eyes, like Hall's "Thorn"). The main characters are usually long-time Florida residents, and often have ties of friendship or enmity that go back a long while. The novels are full of twists and turns, unlikely characters (like Hiaasen's ex-Florida governor who lives in trees and dines on road kill), and frequently a large dose of humor, often highly satirical.

This subgenre has turned up in movies, too; "Miami Blues" and "Striptease" were from novels by established Florida writers, Willeford and Hiaasen, respectively. "Out of Sight," from Leonard's novel, was largely set in a colorfully sun-baked Florida, with weird and wonderful characters. (And gave rise to the new TV series, "Karen Sisco.")

"Out of Time" has a title that is itself meaningless, but perhaps was chosen to suggest "Out of Sight." It's another Florida-set (on the fictitious Banyan Key) crime thriller with a cast most of whom have known each other at least since high school. Director Carl Franklin films in high style, with rich, saturated colors, a very mobile camera (Theo van de Sande is the cinematographer), and a cast of colorful characters. Denzel Washington is the star and the only well-known name in the cast, but most of them acquit themselves well.

The problem is the script. It doesn't help a thriller which is heading for a twist ending if the audience figures out what the twist is long before the hero does, and that's the case here. Dave Collard's script is all too familiar, heavily indebted to the classic film noir, "The Big Clock" (1948) as well as its remake, "No Way Out" (1987). Each and every twist and turn is predictable and mechanical; brief shots, as when Dean Cain glances at a corpse, are inexplicable except as a setup for what is to come.

However, much of "Out of Time" sails gracefully over these obstacles, and does crank up some suspense here and there. Washington is a smooth and pleasing actor; he's not exactly challenged here -- the role lacks complexity and interest, but he rises to the occasion, and makes his Matt Whitlock, police chief of the four-man force of Banyan Key, a more agreeable character than written.

He's in the process of a divorce from Alex Diaz-Whitlock, a homicide detective recently hired by the Miami PD. We learn she wanted him to move there, but he wanted to stay in Banyan Key, where he grew up. An opening scene finds him investigating a prowler, reported by his high-school honey Anne Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), but it's clearly a game the two are playing, and they soon wind up in bed.
Anne herself is married to failed pro footballer Chris (Cain), a local hero gone to seed, and reduced to working as a morgue attendant. He and Matt dislike each other in a wry, tough-guy fashion; Chris suspects Matt is fooling around with Anne, and Matt doesn't give a damn.

He does, however, when on accompanying Anne to visit her oncologist, Dr. Cabbot (Alex Carter), he learns she's dying of cancer. The only hope for her is expensive experimental treatments -- in Switzerland. He's not in love with Anne, but he cares enough for her to give her a big cube of drug-bust money, destined for the DEA. But then Anne's house burns down, along with her, Chris, and, apparently, the money.

The detective assigned to the case is, surprise surprise, Alex, who soon begins to suspect murder. Matt knows that sooner or later, witness and evidence will link him to Anne, and there's the question of the money. What to do. First, he turns for help to his eccentric friend Chae (John Billingsley), whose profession is never made clear, but he's always ready to go fishing with Matt and/or out for a beer. Billingsley, the doctor on "Star Trek: Enterprise," is immensely entertaining in the role, a great sidekick type of the sort played years past by the likes of Gabby Hayes. He's funny, a little jittery, eager, horny and thirsty all the time. But he's steadfastly loyal to Matt.

As Matt dashes about trying secretly to both figure out what's going on and to keep his neck off the chopping block, the movie picks up steam (even if it loses credibility). There are fights, quips, romantic thoughts between Matt and Alex, all leading to, first, a big fight in a Miami hotel room and, finally, a showdown in an abandoned stern-wheeler (?) on a rainy Florida night.

Carl Franklin established himself with the excellent latter-day film noir, "One False Move," and later directed Washington in "Devil in a Blue Dress." He's worked steadily since, but hasn't lived up to the promise of his first few notable films -- and he's not up to that level here, either. The script isn't exactly a sow's ear, but Franklin also doesn't exactly make a silk purse out of it. The movie is sleek and professional, with a great use of color and an excellent, jazzy score by Graeme Revell. But it's also much too plotty, and too much of the film bends over backwards to serve the plot. Just to keep things on track, coincidences abound, as when we learn that Anne is a dental technician....

The unfamiliar cast is mostly up to the demands of the tricky plot. Eva Mendes, sloe-eyed, sultry and tough-with-a-grin is particularly good as the puzzled almost-ex wife; this is her best performance that I have seen. Dean Cain, Superman of "Lois and Clark," is especially good as the sarcastic, angry and dangerous-looking Chris. It's an entirely new kind of role for him, and I hope it gets him more work. Sanaa Lathan is very sexy as Anne, but her performance is a bit amateurish and strained. Almost no one else other than Washington and Billingsley gets a word in, at least in terms of characterization.

Just by being so thoroughly worked-out, "Out of Time" is going to get more favorable reviews than it really deserves. It's not remotely Hitchcockian (despite the claims of some critics), and it isn't as witty and imaginative as books by Leonard, Hiaasen, Hall and Willeford. It's kind of faux-Florida crime, but admittedly is pretty good faux-Florida crime. It's the sort of movie you won't feel cheated by if you buy a ticket, but your world will still turn steadily if you don't see it at all.

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