Not all films are created equal. Some are instant classics, some are soon forgotten. Some, like Carl Franklin’s “Out of Time”, can only strive to be good entertainment. There is nothing special about “Out of Time,” nor is there anything particularly bad. It amounts to typical Hollywood fare: unremarkable, uninventive, entirely predictable and altogether normal.
The film involves a small-town Florida police chief, Mattias Whitlock (Denzel Washington), who becomes implicated in the supposed murder of his high school sweetheart, Ann, and her husband. Whitlock spends the entire film covering his tracks, trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities (led by his ex-wife, played by Eva Mendes) in order to buy enough time to prove his innocence. To clear his name he lies, cheats, steals, and murders. However, he is neither shrewd nor clever, and the implausible coincidences that repeatedly save him make it clear he will never be caught. After a while his mission doesn’t seem worth the cost, or our time.
The constant plot twists often feel forced and drawn-out, including one 10-minute-long sequence where Whitlock forges a fax from the phone company, erasing his number from Ann’s record. This over-emphasized scene epitomizes the running theme in the film: Whitlock can get away with his obvious obstructions because the other cops are too dumb and bumbling to see through them. (His innocence at this point hinges on the fact that nobody in the office knows how to work a fax machine or can find new printing paper).
“Out of Time” could have been a more plausible and enjoyable film if it didn’t take itself so seriously. The title sequence, reminiscent of that in “Catch Me If You Can,” sets a playful mood that holds for the first twenty minutes of the film. But the small-town cop, small-town love affair, small-town murder soon turn into a confusing mess of insurance fraud, drug money and federal agents. The film escalates beyond its means. Character motivation gets lost in the details, and the actors are often unable to maintain consistent emotion from one contrived scene to the next, Mendes especially.
This uneven tone detracts from the film’s ability to captivate the audience. We are left unsure what to feel, since it’s clear from the get-go that Whitlock will never be caught. And yet the whole point of the film is to show him escape. The plot never surprises. If the film had stayed small and fun, and focused on developing characters instead of inserting them into harebrained situations, then it would have succeeded marvelously with Denzel at the helm. But on the whole “Out of Time” feels like a recitation of previous cop movies. The final showdown even ends with the bad guy’s six-shooter running out of bullets. Dirty Harry put this cliche to rest emphatically and it should never appear on the silver screen again.
Franklin does, however, use his camera well. The orange-hued visuals set a warm, sultry tone that develops his favorite milieu: the steamy Southern setting (a la “Devil in a Blue Dress,” also starring Mr. Washington). Frequent close-ups reveal sweat dripping from character’s brows, and they also allow Denzel to shine with a subtle acting style that expresses anxiety with the tiniest twitches. Franklin also controls the flow of scenes with expert precision. If only the structure of the scenes matched his eloquent depiction of them, we’d be in for one hell of a ride.
But alas, rich and satisfying visuals are only as valuable as the story they tell — at least in today’s narrative-driven cinema. “Out of Time” looks good, starts decently, and ends badly. The result is a fine director and fine actors trying to tell a tale unworthy of their talents, and doing the best they can.