There is something to be said for independent filmmakers occasionally dabbling in the mainstream. Although no one wants to see them ďsell outĒ (for lack of a better term), itís fun to see how these directors bring their unique sensibilities to genre films. I love how Steven Soderbergh can make an adventurous indie like Bubble but also a star-studded caper like Oceans Eleven. Or how the Coen brothers can bring the same off-kilter aesthetic to a romantic comedy like Intolerable Cruelty that they brought to Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou. Youíve got to admire this kind of thing because it proves the versatility of these filmmakers, but also because it usually results in better than average mainstream entertainment.
Despite being one of the best directors working today, Spike Lee has, in the past few years, turned out little-seen movies like Bamboozled, She Hate Me, and the criminally overlooked 25th Hour. With Inside Man, Lee jumps into a big Hollywood vehicle with a powerhouse producer (Brian Grazer) and three major stars (Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen). One of the things that is so great about the film is that itís not a phoned-in effort from the director. Armed with an intelligent, clever script, Lee makes the film his own, using his distinct style to create one of the most entertaining films so far this year.
Owen plays Dalton Russell who, along with three colleagues, walks into a New York bank and takes everyone hostage. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are called in to manage the crime scene. Frazier is currently under suspicion of having pocketed some money following a check-cashing bust, although he denies any wrongdoing. However, there is a momentary clash with Capt. John Davis (Willem Dafoe), who is running the Emergency Services Unit.
Frazier attempts to negotiate with Dalton, but the robber doesnít seem interested. In fact, he insists that he will not only get away with the crime, but that he will walk right out the front door as well. The case takes an even more bizarre turn with the arrival of Madeline White (Foster), a mysterious broker who has friends in very high places and doesnít hesitate to let anyone know about it. Sheís been hired by Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the owner of the bank, to make sure a particular safe deposit box is left untouched by the robbers. Frazier canít understand how this woman, who is not part of law enforcement, is allowed so much access to the case. Itís clear, though, that sheís powerful enough to make everyone Ė from Dalton to the mayor Ė take her seriously.
I am leaving more than a few things out of this plot description because Inside Man is full of surprises. Not the usual movie surprises, which often try to pull the rug out from under you just because they can. No, these are (mostly) plausible surprises that move the story forward in key ways. The smart screenplay by Russell Gewirtz doesnít totally reveal its hand until the end, but it does throw in numerous unexpected twists along the way. And when the film does finally reveal the big picture, every piece of the puzzle snaps into perfect place. The revelation of what Dalton wants to steal and how he plans to get away with it is particularly clever.
As you would expect from any movie starring Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen, the performances are nothing short of commanding. Although Washington has played his share of cops before, he makes Frazier completely different. This guy is intelligent, but he uses humor and charm to mask his cunning. (A tense inside-the-bank confrontation between Frazier and Dalton particularly demonstrates this.) Washington shares some intense moments with Owen, who nails an essential quality about Dalton: the guy is menacing but not evil. I donít want to give anything away, but Owen has to walk a careful balance in playing the character, which he does perfectly. Foster, meanwhile, has only a few scenes, but they are among the pictureís best. I love the natural sense of strength the actress brings to Madeline. Hereís a woman who wields so much power that she never has to break a sweat, even in the most perilous of situations. Ask her to explain herself and she will calmly inform you that she doesnít need to explain herself. Foster gives the character a cocky seriousness that makes every one of her scenes thrilling to watch.
You could argue that it would be hard to go wrong with this cast, but I think Inside Man benefits from having been directed by Spike Lee. For starters, he knows how to put modern social flavor into a film. Daltonís hostages, for instance, are not just generic extras; they are a melting pot of races and nationalities. Lee inserts some very subtle scenes to show how racial issues affect a crisis situation. One memorable moment involves a Sikh hostage who is more upset that the cops took his turban than by the fact that he was held captive. The film is definitely set in a post-9/11 world. Lee also brings his trademark visual style (unusual camera angles, different film textures) to the movie, making the story more atmospheric and vivid. Itís clear that he views this not as a mainstream thriller but as a chance to subvert the very concept of a mainstream thriller. In his hands, Inside Man becomes a heist picture with something to say about race, corruption, and morality.
Itís the fact that the movie works on several different levels that makes it so much fun to watch. The standard thriller elements are done more effectively than usual (notice how realistically Lee captures the fear and panic that the hostages display, for instance), but when the story gets to the end, you feel that there is something of substance here. I still want Spike Lee to make the challenging independent features for which he has become well known. However, as a detour into more mainstream filmmaking, Inside Man is genuinely satisfying.
( 1/2 out of four)
Inside Man is rated R for language and some violent images. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.
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