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Inside Man Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
ImageThis, 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 Dalton Russell (Clive Owen); 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, then keep moving them in smaller groups from one room to another. 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 good 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 and crisply stylish. 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 never know 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 dolly, staring into a camera which swiftly backs up carrying the actor. 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.

Blu-ray and HD DVD, the method here, have been used all too often on films that don’t really benefit from high definition presentation, but that’s because these are more recent films, which have undamaged, unworn negatives; some of them may have already been transferred into the digital realm along the way, facilitating their reproduction in high definition. “Inside Man” isn’t especially helped by high definition; the movie is about what people do and say, not so much about what things look like. Also, Lee deliberately shot the interrogation scenes to be grainy and harsh, giving them a look distinctive from the rest of the film. The rest of the film is clear and relatively sharp, but no more so than an average film.

There aren’t many extras, although the Deleted Scenes package is longer than usual—most of the footage is of those post-holdup interrogation scenes, with just three other brief scenes from other sections of the movie. One of them is a group of television scenes, for newscasts included within the film.

There’s an especially well-done making-of featurette, including some scenes from an early read-through of the script by Lee and the entire cast. We do learn that Lee often shoots both sides of a two-person conversation at the same time; in his commentary, we also learn that in scenes in which Washington is talking to Owen by phone, the actors really were conversing by phone, with a separate camera covering each of them.

The most interesting featurette is “Number 4,” a conversation between Spike Lee and Denzel Washington about the four movies they’ve made together: “Mo’ Better Blues,” “He Got Game,” “Inside Man” and “Malcolm X.” Not surprisingly, the most interesting comments are about the latter, still Spike Lee’s best movie.

Lee recorded his commentary track on his birthday in 2006, the day of the premiere of “Inside Man.” The commentary begins reasonably well, with the director occasionally pointing out interesting details, such as the occasional homages to another New York bank holdup movie, “Dog Day afternoon.” However, too much time is spent by Lee simply identifying actors, his occasional “signature shots” (including two long one-take scenes with Washington and Foster). He doesn’t explain how he came to make the movie—originally a project for Ron Howard—until the film is 2/3 over. Finally, he becomes lazy, shutting up altogether part of the time, then allowing his ego too much rein, pointing out “one of my favorite sequences” or (several times) “I like this coming up.” He pointlessly indicates each interior set, and when a sequence moves from set to location. He talks at times as though he’s reading the film’s cutting continuity: “push in slowly,” “very light music here,” and so forth. Unless you’re a major Spike Lee fan, you can easily skip his commentary.

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