The opening credits of this film shimmer at you to a jazz score, letting you know that you are in for an old-fashioned noir film, and that a very tangled web of betrayal, greed, and murder lies ahead.
At first, everything about Chief of Police Matthias Whitlock (Denzel Washington), from the crisply pressed white shirt and dark shorts of his uniform to the purposeful way he walks down the street checking to see whether all the doors are locked, tells us that he is extremely careful, meticulously honest, and highly professional. His best friend, the part-time medical examiner (John Billingsly as Shay), may joke wistfully about borrowing some of the cash in the evidence safe, but Matt is very clear about who he is and how far he will go.
But then he answers a call from Ann Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) about a prowler, and we see that he is willing to go very far indeed when it comes to her. They are having an affair that no one else knows about, especially Ann’s abusive husband (Dean Cain as Chris) and Matt’s estranged wife (Eva Mendes as Alex). He tells Ann a small lie about Alex. And then, when Ann is diagnosed with cancer and needs an experimental treatment, borrowing that money from the evidence safe begins to seem like a possibility. The sharp uniform and close shave are gone. Matt wears a loose Hawaiian shirt and looks increasingly unraveled.
Like Body Heat, this is a throwback to the noir classics, in which an ordinary man is drawn into disaster. Matt (and the audience) may think at first that he has done the wrong thing for the right reasons, but then small lies lead to big ones, and trusting the wrong people leads to disaster.
The holes in the plot (including the traditional “going to a remote location to meet the bad guy all by yourself without telling anyone where you are going”) are outweighed by the specifics of the story and the people who tell it. The movie makes nice sly use of the cliche that white people think that all black people look alike. Having Alex as the homicide detective assigned to the case is a fine twist, as their strained personal relationship makes her overcompensate in deferring to him professionally, delaying or discounting what would otherwise be her inclination to question his actions and statements.
Most important, there is Washington himself, one of the all-time most mesmerizing and appealing screen stars. This role takes full advantage of all of Washington’s greatest strengths, especially his ability to get and keep us on his side and his brilliance in conveying a character who keeps a great deal secret from those around him, but not from the audience. Lathan and Mendes are both exceptionally fine, and Cain is nicely creepy and menacing. The real find here, though, is Billingsly, whose gives his line readings a deliciously offbeat spin, making him far more than the standard wisecracking sidekick.
Parents should know that the movie includes some steamy sexual situations that are right up at the limit of the PG-13 rating. Characters use some strong language. Characters drink and smoke, one to excess. Violence includes gunplay, death from a fall, and a brief shot of charred dead bodies. Inter-racial relationships and marriages are refreshingly portrayed as commonplace, one of the movie’s strengths.
Families who see this movie should talk about where Matt’s turning point was and whether he would have been more likely to tell the truth if not for his complicated relationship with Alex. How believeable do you think the ultimate conclusion is?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice.