Denzel Washington built his stardom playing sympathetic characters, then won an Academy Award as a crooked cop in "Training Day," his first major bad-guy role.
This suggests that an ideal part would allow Mr. Washington to occupy both sides of the moral playing field. That's just what he does in "Out of Time," the new suspense picture directed by Carl Franklin, one of the too few African-American filmmakers to have a sustained career in America.
Washington plays Matt Lee Whitlock, chief of police in a tiny Florida town. Matt is a conscientious lawman, respected by nice folks and feared by unsavory sorts.
Yet he's more sly, even duplicitous, than he appears. He's having a secret love affair with a woman who's married to a man he knows, and he's perfectly capable of all the lying, sneaking, and double-dealing this dubious arrangement involves.
Knowing all this, viewers can find grim irony in the events that propel the movie's plot.
Two charred corpses, identified as Matt's lover and her husband, are found in their burned-down house - and this "accident" becomes a homicide case when arson equipment is discovered, and the medical examiner reports no smoke in the victims' lungs. Matt must solve the crime, of course. But the deeper he digs, the more clues crop up pointing directly to him.
It's an important story element that Matt's town in the Florida keys is so small that the police chief can take care of most criminal issues himself.
This also means he could cover up almost anything he wanted to, and his estranged wife - herself a cop assigned by another agency to investigate the case - is very aware of this. Can he solve the double murder without letting his own secrets slip? And is it possible he actually was involved in the awful crime?
"Out of Time" benefits from high-energy directing by Mr. Franklin, whose earlier thrillers include "One False Move" and "Devil in a Blue Dress," and from Washington's confident, amiable acting. Some of the supporting performances are also strong, especially John Billingsley as the not-very-health-conscious medical examiner.
The film indulges too many clichés for its own good, though. For instance, Matt's unlikely realization that a certain ballpoint pen might provide a crucial clue could have come from a century-old story where Sherlock Holmes catches a culprit by detecting the scent of Tunisian tea on his waistcoat.
Also overdone are the split-second suspense sequences, where someone alters a computer file, switches off a cell-phone, or clambers off a collapsed fire escape just in time to dodge catastrophe.
All of which means "Out of Time" might better be titled "Just in Time," so numerous are its last-minute surprises and switcheroos. It's a serviceable picture, but hardly a top-notch vehicle for Washington's remarkable gifts.
• Rated PG-13; contains sex, violence, and vulgar language.