A film review by Craig J. Koban


2006, R, 129 mins.

Det. Frazier: Denzel Washington / Dalton Russell: Clive Owen / Madeline White: Jodie Foster / Capt. John Darius: Willem Dafoe / Det. Bill Mitchell: Chiwetel Ejiofor / Arthur Case: Christopher Plummer / Stevie: Kim Director / Steve-O: James Ransone

 Directed by Spike Lee /  Written by Russell Gewirtz

There is a small, but sincere, moment in Spike Lee’s latest joint - INSIDE MAN-  that demonstrates why it is more than just a journey into largely big budget, populist filmmaking waters for the maverick director.  It’s a brief, but revealing, moment between a bank robber and a very young hostage. 

The hostage - a pre-adolescent black youth - is shown playing a Grand Theft Auto-style video game on his portable system.  The robber comes in to see what he’s playing and seems a bit mortified.  The young tyke explains how and why you should take your main character – an inner city black man – on various missions to kill other black men.  He demonstrates, in one of the game’s more deplorable visuals, how killing a black gang member with multiple gun shot wounds to the head, followed by making him swallow a live grenade, will gain you tons of “street cred.”  The robber, a bit stunned by what he sees, earnestly states, “I think I need to talk to your father about this game here.”

In another director’s hands, INSIDE MAN could have been yet another run-of-the mill heist/bank robbery film.  In Lee’s always-assured hands, he transcends the genre and gives us a final product that is more layered than similar, lesser films.  He has always been a sharp, frank, and outspoken editorialist in his past works that explored race relations.  That is not to say that INSIDE MAN lectures more than it entertains, but it does find a nice balance between the two.  INSIDE MAN emerges as a pure heist film, but it still manages to find the time to sit back, take a deep breath, and offer moments of politicized reflection. 

The film relishes in its plot details, which offers layer upon layer of deceptions, double crosses, and perhaps a few too many plot twists and reveals for its own good (the film is a bit too ingenious – especially in its third act ­­– to the point of stretching credibility).  Yet, Lee marries this above average cops and robbers narrative with a sensitive eye to little details.  A conventional approach might be to make INSIDE MAN as a conventional film.  However, by combining a nail-biting and tense thriller with his trademark commentary on urban racial politics, Lee transcends INSIDE MAN successfully above conventions.  He gives flavor to a genre that is quickly growing more stale with repetitive films.  In our modern film age of witless remakes and monotonous formulas, INSIDE MAN proves that you can still tell old stories in new ways.

What emerges here is a film that is well crafted and solid as a caper story.  It's involving to the point of being infectious.  Lee does such an efficient job of luring the audience into the film's narrative and does not let us go for any one of its 129 minutes.  These types of thrillers have been done so many countless many times before and have seen so many permutations over the years to the point of being tiresome.  If you’ve seen one bank robbery/hostage negotiation picture then you just may have seen them all.  Yet, Lee is able to anchor the viewer in so effortlessly with his smooth, stylish, and confident direction that you soon forget the film’s more otherwise standard elements.  The fact that he also blends in all of this with brimming and invigorating themes such as ethics, amorality, police injustice, city politics, and urban living are INSIDE MAN’s ultimate strong points.  Lee has been known as a largely subversive voice in contemporary cinema, but contrary to what other critics have been telling you, it has not been stamped out that much in INSIDE MAN.  Instead, it’s more subtly infused in the film.  It certainly is an odd, but highly compelling, mixture - sort of like CRASH meets DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

Just consider many small moments in the film where Lee’s voice is heard, but to the point where it's not overbearing.  For instance, there is a scene where one of the hostages has been released, but he is also released in the disguise of the hostages.  He is a Sikh, but with his dark complexion and turban, one of the officers automatically asks, “Are you Arab!?”  He thinks he's a terrorist.  Obviously, the officer has not taken his diversity training yet, seeing as a turban does not necessarily imply that one is both Arab and an American-hating terrorist.  There is yet another scene of a hostage being let go, but this time he is a black man disguised in the garb of one of the robbers.  He pleads with the police that he’s just the bank’s janitor, but some of the cops are still suspicious. 

These individual moments are miniscule and don’t detract from the overall thrust of the story, but they make their points clear and kind of tell little mini-stories all on their own.  They inevitably lend to INSIDE MAN’S rich texture.  It has such a swaggering and secure bravado in terms of marrying its disparaging elements together.  The film breathes with a sort of post-911 relevancy and urgency that it otherwise could have avoided with a less astute director helming the film.

As for the robbery story itself?  It is complex, but not too overly complex considering that the film does a good job of connecting all of the dots for us without insulting our intelligence with silly and moronic exposition.  At face value, the film has a fairly routine setup (robbers plan bank heist; robbers raid bank; robbers take hostages; robbers confront police who come to the scene; determined police negotiator tries to talk them out of it...yadda, yadda).  But, the film throws in a somewhat unexpected curveball in the form of a third party that also expresses interests in the bank and its assets. 

The perpetually cool, refined and sophisticated Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, who is the leader of a gang of masked men who come in a lock down, upper Manhattan bank.  His goal – as he relays to the audience in the film’s first scene – is to execute the “perfect bank robbery.”  He and all of his men are masked (the fact that Owen gives a compelling performance with his face completely obscured is significant) and have taken several hostages.  One aspect of their plan is highly resourceful, ingenious, and daring.  They ask all of the hostages to strip and put on clothes that make them look identical to their own disguises.  As a result, when they release one hostage, how does the police know that the hostage is not one of the robbers?  Moreover, with all of the hostages looking like robbers, this all but subverts any raid attempts by the police.  Obviously, they could accidentally shoot an innocent person to death.  It seems clear that Dalton can declare “checkmate” in the game of successful stalling.

And why does he stall?  Maybe it has everything to do with his real motivation.  Without spoiling anything, Dalton has no real desire to steal any actual money from the bank.  He has his eyes squarely on something else from the bank’s vaults, which will not be revealed by me.  To complicate matters even more, this “item” that Dalton aspires to steal has a significant personal interest to the bank’s CEO, Arthur Case (played with characteristic poise by Christopher Plummer).  The item in question becomes the film’s ultimate "MacGuffin" for the story’s first two-thirds and it is of such grave importance that – if it became public knowledge – then it would be the end of Case. 

Case becomes so determined to hide the secret of this item that he hires Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to “fix” the situation.  Who White is and what exactly she does is one of the film’s unsatisfying mysteries.  She’s too enigmatic and ill defined of a presence for a film as calculating as this.  All we know is that (a) she is a first class “fixer” with “connections” that put her in a very lucrative place to broker a deal with the robbers and (b) that she is played in a solid and low-key performance of sly, unsavory antagonism by Foster.  She rarely gets to play figures that have such an annoying smugness, so her work here is welcome, despite her role’s decided murkiness.

Of course, every robbery thriller has a set of downtrodden police detectives called to the scene to negotiate.  Enter Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Bill (Denzel Washington in the making, Chiwetel Ejiofor), who are further teamed up with Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe, in more of a cameo role).  Frazier may come across as yet another one of those obligatory street tough cops that are also master sleuths that belong in 1940’s crime noirs, but he’s a bit more embittered and shows more shelf-wear than that.  He’s smart, cunning, and a bit risky with his tactics, but he’s intelligent enough to see through the smoke and mirrors that Dalton is throwing up at the police.  The screenplay is keen enough to not show Frazier as a supercop who spots motives from a mile away, nor does he find himself so smart that he has to correct his dumber superiors at all times.  Fraser learns things as the audience does and learns from his own mistakes, of which he makes many through the course of the film.  As the story progresses, he gets more suspicious to the point where he senses that this is not a typical robbery on Dalton's part. 

INSIDE MAN boasts talent resume that any film released today would only dream of having.  Lee’s work behind the camera – as stated – hones in the proceedings by given it emotional and contextually weight, all while revealing more of his esoteric and stylistic flourishes (one shot alone, featuring a distraught Frazier race to bank to confront Dalton after he apparently kills a hostage, is particularly effective and aesthetically nifty).  The stars in front of the camera are equally stellar.  Foster plays her mysterious role with toughness and presence, and Christopher Plummer gives his role of the bank CEO a suspicious and dubious allure, despite his meager, outward façade.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was chillingly and quietly sadistic as the villain in last year’s SERENITY and tender and sweet in Woody Allen’s MELINDA AND MELINDA, demonstrates again here why he is poised to become a major talent.  His interaction with Washington and their crisp, sharp dialogue and chemistry ignite the film.  And then there is the masterful Washington, who plays roles of fiercely determined, crafty, and perpetually heedful protagonists better than anyone working today.

For as much as I genuinely admired INSIDE MAN, the film has some legitimate faults, most of which emerge in the film’s final 30 minutes.  As mentioned, Foster’s role seemed a bit too cryptic and vague, but then there is also the business of one of the film’s “big” reveals.  In this moment we are given a glimpse as to how one key character was able to hide himself and elude the authorities.  As soon as I witnessed this moment it rang so utterly false, so much to the point that it seemingly made me shake my head with disbelief.  INSIDE MAN does such an admirable job of grounding its film in a gritty and urbane reality that it all but nearly has it drowned out by this revelation.  How this character managed to escape detection from the police and the bank security for the time he did seems unquestionably ridiculous. 

But alas, these are minor flaws in a superior entertainment.  For a filmmaker that gave us daring, evocative, and relevant masterstroke works like DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X, INSIDE MAN is clearly a film that is not indicative of Spike Lee’s finest efforts.  Yes, the film may be his most accessible work and is certainly poised to be his most profitable and audience-friendly film, but that should not undermine its caginess, resourcefulness, and originality.  INSIDE MAN has stellar, grade-A performances, spirited and colorful dialogue, and it has a heist plot that is intricate and expertly crafted, at least three-quarters of the time.  Yet, even beyond that, Lee imparts in the film his own unique sensibilities and guileless voice.  He is a filmmaking artist that always has something interesting to say.  The most thankful and appealing aspect of INSIDE MAN is that he does not let a pervasive and already thoroughly explored genre overwhelm his own authorial touches.  In a novice’s hands, the film could have been a passable, escapist popcorn thriller.  In Lee’s hands, it’s so much more than just a simple-minded diversion.

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