Out of Time

“Out of Time” introduces a nightmarish moral quandary for its central character — a true no-win situation — then backs down and allows for an easy resolution. The movie is fun, but it talks the talk without walking the walk.

Denzel Washington plays Matt Whitlock, chief of a tiny police department in Banyan Key, Fla. He’s going through a tense divorce with the smoldering Alex (Eva Mendes), now a police detective, and is having an affair with lovely Anne Merai Harrison (Sanaa Lathan), wife of a hot-headed low-level security guard named Chris (Dean Cain). Somehow, Matt and Anne have kept their affair a secret, even from their closest friends, even in a town with a population under 2,000. They should have been criminals, with that kind of knack for deception.

Anyway, Anne learns she’s dying of cancer. She has a $1 million insurance policy she can sign over to Matt, but he’d rather keep her alive, naturally. To that end, there are experimental treatments available that may prolong her life, but they are expensive. Matt has a few hundred thousand dollars sitting in a safe in his office, the net of a recent drug bust. Would anyone know if it went missing?

Alas, Anne and Chris are killed in a housefire that was obviously the result of arson. More alas, Matt was seen snooping around the house earlier that night, and even still more alas, Matt is the beneficiary of Anne’s insurance policy. It looks bad, and it’s not helped by having his ex-wife heading up the investigation.

The playful script by Dave Collard (a TV writer making his big-screen debut) mines a good deal of tension from the awkwardness of Matt conducting his own secret investigation into the murders right under the nose of the real detectives. The director, Carl Franklin (“High Crimes,” “One True Thing”), is to be commended for making things like scanning a document and sending a fax seem suspenseful; rarely has the office work behind a murder investigation seemed so exciting.

The twists and turns come frequently and without too much defiance of the rules of logic and probability. I only have issues with the finale, which I will not spoil for you, but which neglects many of the important questions previously raised. Matt is a good man whose lies have spun out of control. The more the murder investigation proceeds, the more it seems impossible for him to keep everyone from knowing about his affair with Anne. We sweat along with him — Denzel Washington excels, as always, at getting us on his side and keeping us there — and we feel as claustrophobic as he must. How would it feel to have an awful secret about to be revealed to the world?

But the film veers off before arriving at answers to all those issues. It’s perfectly good as a mystery-thriller, I suppose, but it could have been so much more. Washington’s last big film, “Training Day,” managed to combine popcorn entertainment with thought-provoking issues. This one heads down the same path, then plays it safe and sticks to the popcorn. It’s a shame; it could have been great.

B- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, some profanity, some strong sexuality, a little violence.)