Inside Man Review
One fine day in New York City, three men and a woman, all masked and dressed in painters' overalls walk into a downtown branch of the Manhattan Trust Bank. Once inside, they produce AK-47s and announce that they're robbing the bank. The security guards are swiftly disarmed and the staff and customers taken hostage. Awaiting the inevitable arrival of the police, the gang forces everyone to strip and change into identical painters' costumes so that the hostages are indistinguishable from their captors. These are not your average, desperate bank robbers. They have a very cunning plan, which fans of a certain underrated Bill Murray comedy may find a touch familiar.
The gang's leader is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a very cool customer taking a very large gamble. For his scheme to work, Russell (much like Hans Gruber in Die Hard) is relying on the police to follow their procedures to the letter but there's a fly in the ointment - Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the NYPD cop who is assigned to the case. Frazier's reputation has been tarnished since a criminal he busted accused him of taking money. However he's one of the smartest cops in the city and he senses that something is not quite right here. He becomes even more certain after the arrival on the scene of political "fixer" Madeline White (Jodie Foster). She represents the bank's owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) who is deeply concerned about the robbery - and not because he's afraid for his employees or his money.
Inside Man is the first attempt at a mainstream genre movie by acclaimed director Spike Lee and an elegant, unpredictable thriller it is too. The script by Russell Gewirtz plays the situation for realism rather than thrills and keeps the action to a minimum - it's a battle of wits between two clever men. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are ideally cast as the adversaries, Washington's hot-headed street savvy contrasting nicely with Owen's cold charm. Their one scene together, in which Frazier tries to rattle Russell's cage to prove a hunch is the highlight of the film.
Admirers of Spike Lee will find this by far his most conventionally directed film, much more so even than his biopic Malcolm X. There are few of the stylistic touches you expect to see in Lee's work, although he can't resist adding his signature shot of a character seeming to glide towards the camera. It's not an anonymous film however. Lee finds plenty of room for social comment.
Without going into detail and giving away plot points, the film's main theme is corruption, of both the political and financial kind. The script's cynical attitude towards rich businessmen and politicians must have been part of what attracted Lee to the project, his opinions of such people being much like Michael Moore's. All the characters in the film with power or money prove to be up to no good. Jodie Foster's character, a power broker who trades in favours and doesn't care whose side she's on, is a particularly loathesome piece of work.
There are also jabs at racist attitudes among cops. After a hostage is unmasked to reveal a turban, the cops panic, assuming he's an Arab terrorist. However, Lee tries to be fair-minded and empathic towards all his characters: when a cop is pulled up for his negative opinion of Hispanics, he replies that he'd sooner be an old bigot than a young corpse.
Video gamers will note that Lee doesn't appear to hold a very high opinion of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Still, those who've played the game will probably laugh the hardest at his little potshot and I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Rockstar Games used his embellishments in their next sequel.
The most important thing Lee brings to Inside Man is attention to character. As well plotted as it is, it's easy to imagine this movie being a rather dry police procedural. Instead it's alive and full of interesting, well-drawn human beings. The suspense is provided not by thriller clichés but by the way believable characters react off one another. This is one of those films that has you on the edge of your seat, wondering what they're going to do next.