Slick but ludicrously contrived, Carl Franklin's noir-inflected thriller is an exercise in putting a poor jerk in a bad situation and tightening the screws until he sweats blood. Police Chief Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington) is a big fish in the very small pond of Banyan Key, Fla., where crime is mostly a matter of rowdy drunks and petty robbery. That said, Matt recently participated in a substantial drug bust, which is why there's nearly $500,000 in shrink-wrapped cash languishing in his evidence lock-up while the case inches its way through the justice system. If only his private life were so laid back. Unhappily separated from his ambitious wife, Alex (Eva Mendes), who just made detective with the Miami Police Department, Matt is sneaking around with his high-school sweetheart, Ann (Sanaa Lathan), who's miserably married to an abusive ex-quarterback (Dean Cain). Ann also has terminal cancer and can't afford the experimental treatment in Switzerland that would make her feel she'd fought her best fight, so Matt violates every law and principle governing his profession and gives her the confiscated drug money. Since Ann recently made him the beneficiary of her million-dollar insurance policy, Matt figures he'll get the money back before anyone notices. When double murder intrudes upon this volatile situation, Matt's complacent cheating blows up in his face. Alex is sent to head up a task force and if Matt's sneaking around comes to light he'll be the obvious suspect. His desperate scramble to hobble the official investigation while conducting his own — the same suspense structure that drives Kenneth Fearing's celebrated 1946 pulp novel, The Big Clock, filmed in 1948 and again in 1988 as NO WAY OUT — propel the plot's many twists and turns. Dave Collard's preposterous script relies heavily on fortuitous coincidence (people who could provide Alex's team with key information always seem to be out when she calls) and thoroughly stupid behavior. That this atmospheric time-waster works at all is almost entirely due to Washington's performance, which in turn owes a great deal to Franklin's light touch with actors. Under Franklin's assured direction, Washington shakes off the dreary gravity he so often affects, letting his sly natural charisma shines through. He negotiates tricky emotional territory with a dancer's casual grace, never smirks at the material — even when it deserves it — and transforms Matt's cliched comic-relief bickering with Chae (John Billingsley), Banyan Key's hard-drinking medical examiner, into a sparkling rapport.