Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Matchstick Man

The satisfying lowbrow thriller Out of Time burns like a house afire.


At one point, Carl Franklin looked to be one of Americaís most promising filmmaking talents. His searing 1992 film One False Move and his large-scaled, sorely under-appreciated 1995 film noir Devil in a Blue Dress told their stories through an African-American perspective. More importantly, they were movies from outside the Hollywood system that nevertheless gave us Hollywood-style thrills. The financial flop of the latter film drove him into the arms of the industry, though, and his movies since then ó the 1998 weeper One True Thing and last yearís middlebrow thriller High Crimes ó have been drab and uninvolving. Thatís why the biggest news to emerge from his latest film, Out of Time, is the fact that Carl Franklin is back in the groove. This satisfyingly twisty little movie brings him back into the realm of pulpy crime fiction, and returning to the genre seems to have allowed him to regain his footing.

Denzel Washington plays Mathias ďMattĒ Whitlock, a police chief on one of the Florida Keys whoís having an affair with Ann-Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), the wife of an abusive, eternally pissed-off former NFL quarterback turned security guard (Dean Cain). When Ann-Merai is diagnosed with cancer, her only hope is an expensive experimental treatment, so Matt steals the $485,000 in cash that heís been keeping in his office safe as evidence from a previous drug bust and gives it to her. Just before he executes his plan to run off with her, however, a deliberately set house fire kills her and her husband.

His Oscar win for his bad-guy turn in Training Day has freed Washington to play ethically messy characters like Matt, but the role here doesnít challenge him to show new sides of himself. Washington did play a similar, if far more textured, character for the same director in Devil in a Blue Dress, and itís not a stretch to imagine that he took this part to help Franklin out. If thatís the case, then we should be grateful.

Franklin shows once again that he can make a compelling thriller without resorting to car chases or explosions. Matt has to cover his tracks quickly to replace the missing cash and avoid becoming the prime suspect in the murders, and he has to do it under the nose of his estranged wife Alex (Eva Mendes), a Miami homicide cop whoís leading the investigation and who knows Matt well enough to sense instantly when heís not being straight with her. Franklin takes this set of circumstances and builds some bravura set pieces around little things such as Matt trying to keep Alex from receiving a faxed set of phone records thatíll prove that he was sleeping with Ann-Merai. He also engages in a lethal struggle on a hotel balcony, and the hardest part isnít killing the bad guy but getting out of the hotel afterwards without running into the cops arriving behind him. The skill that goes into these sequences is to be savored by connoisseurs of action filmmaking. Out of Time isnít anywhere as deep as Franklinís better, previous movies, but it offers the pleasures of a good, juicy paperback novel.

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