Inside Man

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/04/06 18:11:40

"I haven't seen a heist/hostage movie this good since 'Die Hard.'"
5 stars (Awesome)

So now Spike Lee moves into the mainstream with “Inside Man,” a heist thriller that is unlike anything Lee has given us in the past. On the surface, it is ordinary and familiar, just another cops-and-robbers programmer. But once we get into the thing, we discover that we are in the hands of a master; Lee’s work here ranks among his very best, and he elevates the story to wind up as one of the all-time great heist films.

One could debate why Lee chose to work on such a project - a caper flick from a rookie screenwriter (Russell Gewirtz, whose only other credits include two episodes of the short-run TV series “Blind Justice”) - instead of one of his more personal, politically charged efforts. The reason doesn’t matter. With “Inside Man,” Lee continues to expand his horizons as a filmmaker; he’s tried documentaries, concert movies, short films, even television, and while he’ll always be known for his socially aware dramas, and while his later works have been wildly hit-and-miss, at least he’s constantly working to challenge himself as a director, avoiding getting stuck in a single field.

And so he finally goes mainstream, and he does it brilliantly. “Inside Man” is, on the surface, quite simple: a bank robbery turns into a hostage situation, resulting in a battle of wits with the detective who’s on the case. We get twists and turns, some of them predictable, some of them not. We get shady characters on the sidelines. And we get to play along as the film teases us with the “how” of the caper; just what will the bad guys - and the good guys - do next?

But it is far from simple. Gewirtz’ script is one that assumes a bit of intelligence on the viewer’s part. It plays around with the timeline without stopping to explain itself, figuring the audience can either catch up or get lost. It presents the intellect of all characters as something to be respected and admired. And yes, it is out to trick us, but it always plays fair, understanding that the fun of a good twist isn’t that there is a twist, but that the twist can be figured out.

He then fills his screenplay with an array of fascinating characters, all of whom actually manage to become quite three-dimensional. Our hero is Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who’s in hot water regarding a previous bust; this case, his first hostage negotiation, is his shot at redemption. Frazier is repeatedly challenged for the position of power, not only by the head criminal (Clive Owen), but by his own side, too. The police captain (Willem Dafoe) is there to do things his way; a mysterious political broker of sorts (Jodie Foster) gets what she wants but never lets Frazier in on what’s happening. Heck, his girlfriend has been hinting at marriage. What’s a guy to do?

With Washington in the role, you can be confident that Frazier’s ability to keep his cool will have greater depth than just some actor playing the tough cop routine. Washington is mesmerizing here, his levelheadedness only allowing the audience a tiny peek at the turning of the wheels within. And you have to love the little touches he brings to the character, like how he’s constantly rubbing his bald head as a way of working through his thoughts. (While sparkling on his own, Washington is at his best when playing off co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the role of Frazier’s partner; the two have a give-and-take that’s simply fascinating.)

Owen, then, offers the other side of the coin. His role is obviously patterned after the Hans Gruber character from “Die Hard” - the slick British threat whose intelligence is admirable and whose charms are impossible to ignore. Gewirtz does not present a carbon copy, however, as Owen’s character is curiously not a straightforward villain. There’s something going on with this guy, but we can never quite figure out what it is. He, too, becomes more than your typical bad guy. Owen is electric in every scene, taking command of the screen, always drawing us closer.

Lee takes all of this and tacks on his own special touch. This may be mainstream cinema, but it is mainstream cinema with a flair often unseen in the multiplexes. Lee’s camera gets unnervingly close in some shots, hauntingly distant in others. He gets playful here, his camera weaving in and out of the action with giddy excitement over it all. (Watch for the tracking shot where the camera glides through the massive bank set; it’s a doozy.)

Of course, Lee’s not about to make a movie, no matter how mall theater-friendly it may be, without ensuring the inclusion of some sort of social commentary. But don’t worry: not once does the politicizing get in the way. In fact, it enhances the tale, allowing the thriller to become more relevant, more complex, more engaging. The remarks on race relations in a post-9/11 New York, offered here in small but powerful doses, give a heft to the goings-on, while the blunt portrayal of anxious police officers who get a little rough with those who don’t deserve it reflects a tension that has yet to disperse in our nation. (If nothing else, moments like these help the movie feel more real, an adjective often missing in escapist entertainment.)

Most effective, however, is a small, almost throwaway sequence involving an eight-year-old boy playing a Grand Theft Auto-style video game. There is a sadness to this scene, as we watch this boy admire the robbers for their supposed “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” lifestyle. Lee is obviously disgusted with the glorification of thug culture, and here he allows his villain to take the same stance. Unlike other films, where gangsters wink and smile at kids eager to mirror their actions, Owen’s character is disappointed and disturbed by the child’s comment. His final remark to the boy makes for one of the film’s best lines, and a shameful, biting slap to unconcerned parents everywhere.

“Inside Man” is full of asides like this, allowing its title to grow and hold multiple meanings. This is a bit of thriller entertainment rich with observations on human nature and behavior. But it’s plenty fun, too, a gee-whiz marvel of cops-and-robbers goodness that’s every bit as amusing as it is complex. This is an ingeniously crafted, expertly constructed mini-masterpiece, gripping and thrilling and just plain satisfying.

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