Denzel Washington has played noble, and he has played evil, but Out of Time, Carl Franklin's entertainingly deft sleight-of-hand thriller, invites us to watch him in a new mode -- squirming with anxiety -- and the sweat of high pressure looks good on him. Set on the sleepy tropical island of Banyan Key, Fla., just down the coconut grove from Miami, this is one of those genuine Hitchcockian contraptions in which the hero may not be guilty, but he's not quite innocent, either. In the act of escaping the predicament fate has laid out for him, he's forced to confront -- and pay for -- his sins.
Early on, Washington's Matt Whitlock, the Banyan Key chief of police, carries on a sultry affair with Ann Merai (Sanaa Lathan), the wife of a local jerk (Dean Cain) whose contempt for him only heightens the tingle of adulterous excitement. Whitlock may be a smooth operator, but he's no heartless cad. When it turns out that his lover has been stricken with cancer, he's there at her side, ready to do anything, even if it means raiding a police safe that holds $480,000 in confiscated drug money. Whitlock isn't stealing the cash, just borrowing it. Since he's doing it to help save a life, who could really blame him?
Washington, in cocksure-lothario mode, woos the audience as effortlessly as he does his costar. It's fun to see him go nose to nose with Cain, boastfully flaunting his adultery even as he denies it. Washington is so commanding in these scenes that it never occurs to you he's playing a sucker. It would be unfair to give away much of what happens in ''Out of Time,'' but suffice it to say that Whitlock ends up investigating a twisted thicket of foul play. He then realizes that the clues have all been set up to point to him. The audience knows he's being framed, but with the inquiry under way, he has to lie with such split-second frantic cunning that he has the aura of a guilty man -- and the fact that he grabbed all of that drug money (even for a compassionate reason) puts him in a moral gray zone. That Whitlock has an estranged wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), who has just been promoted to homicide detective only heightens his need to hide.
Except that he's hiding in plain sight. ''Out of Time'' may be nothing more (or less) than a nicely paced genre maze, but when Washington stands in the police station trying to fake a cool facade, even as he's quietly juggling technological tools (computer, cell phone, fax machine) to make sure that his name doesn't pop up on incriminating phone records, we're seeing the actor at his peak. He has to look mellow for his fellow cops and, at the same time, nervous enough to show us what he's really thinking, and it's that balancing act that lends the movie its hum of tension. ''Out of Time'' has its routine elements, but Franklin, as a director, has spent a decade failing to live up to the promise of ''One False Move,'' his 1992 sleeper. The wait, I'm pleased to report, is now over.