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Inside Man (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 24 March 2006
This, Spike Lee’s first “regular Hollywood movie,” is sleek, clever and intermittently involving. Unfortunately, it’s just a little too long to work all the way through, and you’ll probably find your attention wandering at about the one hour mark. Still, it’s occasionally tense and has an inventive—too inventive?—script by first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz.

Lee gets things off to a fast start; the movie has barely begun when four crooks invade a plush Wall Street bank while dressed as wall painters. They immediately take over, barricade the front doors—and then essentially just shut up.
Skilled NYPD hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) briskly takes over from somewhat irked Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe). Late in the film, the tables are turned on Frazier, but by that time, he’s so curious about the atypical behavior of the holdup team—they demand a plane?—and worried enough about the 40 or so hostages in the bank that he continues working on the case.

Meanwhile, an elegant tycoon (Christopher Plummer) is informed that one of his banks is being robbed. His reaction—a small blink, a murmured “WHICH bank?—tells us just enough to know that there is something special about this particular bank. He quickly meets with grinning, cynical free-lance advisor Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) who assures him there will be no problem negotiating with the leader of the robbers.

Who is Clive Owen, as Dalton Russell; he’s the first person we see in the movie, talking directly to the camera. There’s some suggestion that he’s telling us this story, which is a little disconcerting—if he’s doing this, then we know he will live through whatever follows, reducing suspense. Also, the movie is occasionally interrupted by Frazier’s interviews with some of the hostages, after the situation has been resolved. Which tells us that it will BE resolved—it’s the why and how that are the mysteries.

Because it quickly becomes clear that the holdup team is not after a lot of loot. They ignore tall money towers in one vault, and concentrate on only one safety deposit box in another. They seem to spend most of their time digging a hole through concrete in a storage room. They also keep the hostages disoriented, first ordering them to divide up by gender, then into bank employees and customers. They also have the hostages wear clothes exactly like the holdup team members are wearing. All this is very satisfyingly mysterioso—just what the heck is going on? But it’s diluted by those flash-forwards and by a pace that slows down too often.
Still, it’s great to see that Spike Lee has been paying close attention. His movies have always been very much HIS movies, but the sleek smoothness of “Inside Man” conclusively shows that he’s learned stuff his previous work never indicated he even cared about, like action, suspense and tension. He can make a Standard Hollywood Movie just about as well as most well-paid directors, and a lot better than most.

He’s also helped by a hell of a cast, even if you only count the first four players. Denzel Washington has never let an audience down yet, and he doesn’t do it here, either. His Frazier is getting a little older, his home life is confusing (his live-in girlfriend has her petty crook brother living with them), and he’s not as highly placed in police ranks as he thinks he should be. Still, he’s a tough, expert cop—one with, like the movie itself, an unexpected sense of humor. There’s a funny scene between masked Clive Owen and a little boy hostage about the appalling brutal video game the boy obsessively plays. Also, the Armenian language plays into the movie in an unexpected and rewarding way. This is a brash but cool movie, expert on every level.

Another expert is Jodie Foster—of course. She’s never played a role remotely like Madeleine White. She’s controlled, smart, cynical, fond of but unfazed by power, highly manipulative. She’s never faced a situation where she wasn’t quickly on top of everything, running everyone around her. She likes having control over characters like Plummer’s super-powerful businessman; she LIVES for it. And yet Foster’s performance is light as a butterfly; you never catch her acting. She’s a controlled cat who’s eaten her share of canaries.

You can barely catch Clive Owen acting, too, but that’s mostly because he plays the majority of his scenes behind a mask. His character, Dalton Russell (as he tells us almost as soon as the image hits the screen), is almost as puzzling to us as he is to Frazier. Even at the end, we discover just how he got the information that led to his leading the assault on the bank. At the end, he basically disappears. But Owen is always a pleasure to watch—handsome, rugged, a bit sarcastic. The people at Eon Productions are nuts for not casting him as James Bond.

The rest of the cast has been carefully selected; almost everyone who has a line has a character, and some of them are sharp and witty, others a bit obtuse and blank. Production values are very good; the movie is set in Manhattan, and has a very New York feel. It’s sophisticated, imaginative—and somewhat draggy. (Plus, Lee continues to use those idiotic shots of an actor standing on a platform, staring into a camera which swiftly backs up. It does not remotely look like the actor is walking, doesn’t begin to give a feeling of what it’s like to walk along quickly like this. Still, it’s a small foible, no more harmful to the movies than Hitchcock’s cameos hurt his movies.)

Still, the erratic pace and puzzling avoidance of revealing some key information make “Inside Man” less of a thriller than it might have been. It’s still worth seeing, but you’ll come out of it feeling there was something missing. The title, incidentally, is a play on words.

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