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Washington saves mediocre ‘Time’

Hitchcockian thriller substitutes style for suspense

If last year’s “John Q” proved anything, it’s that Denzel Washington’s colossal charisma can elevate a mediocre movie with an outlandish plot to hit status.

Washington tries again with another thoroughly commonplace movie, “Out of Time,” a shrill, implausible thriller that substitutes style for suspense.

What lifts the movie above its silly plot are sturdy, engaging performances from Washington and co-stars Eva Mendes, Sanaa Lathan, Dean Cain and John Billingsley as Washington’s comic Man Friday.

“Out of Time” is a dual reunion for Washington, who acted with Mendes in “Training Day” and reteams with director Carl Franklin, the filmmaker behind Washington’s 1995 mystery “Devil in a Blue Dress.”

As in that earlier collaboration, “Out of Time” casts Washington as a man unwittingly tossed into the center of a murder investigation.

Washington plays small-town Florida police chief Matt Whitlock, an easygoing chump having an affair with married beauty Ann Merai Harrison (Lathan) and undergoing a messy divorce from his wife, Alex (Mendes), who has moved on to a big-city police detective’s job nearby.

When Ann Merai and her hubby (Cain) are murdered in an arson fire, Matt quickly realizes all the evidence points to him. So he does what any decent, upright cop would do: Lie, evade, bob, weave and frantically tamper with the clues to fend off suspicion while he tries to hunt down the real culprits.

Is it a frame job? A cover-up for another crime? A case of circumstantial evidence fingering an innocent man?

Franklin plays the Hitchcock wrong-man thing with such slick bombast that it sucks most of the tension out of Matt’s frenzied sprint to stay ahead of his colleagues, including Alex, whose detective squad has jurisdiction in the case.

The script by first-time screenwriter Dave Collard is one of escalating extremes as Matt digs himself out of one hole only to topple into a mine shaft.

Among the fine supporting cast, Billingsley is the standout as the local coroner, comic relief who will do anything to help his buddy Matt out of a jam, so long as he can crack wise while doing it.

As he proved with his Academy Award-winning role in “Training Day,” Washington can make the nastiest brute charming and likable. In “Out of Time,” Washington’s a pussycat by comparison, doing bad things for generally honorable reasons.

You can fault Matt for his gullibility, but Washington’s magnetism keeps you rooting for the guy even when he strays onto moral thin ice.