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Inside Man
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It may not look like it, but this is Spike Lee's best work in years."
5 stars

After a series of films that proved to be artistically uneven (for every strong effort like “Summer of Sam” and the criminally misunderstood “Bamboozled,” there has been a muddle like “He Got Game” or an outright disaster like the inexplicable “She Hate Me”) and commercially uninspiring (with the exception of the concert film “The Original Kings of Comedy”), Spike Lee has found himself in the position that most directors wind up in at least once during their careers–making an utterly anonymous and wholly commercial bit of product in order to demonstrate to the studios that he can indeed bring in audiences. At best, such films can come across as mild diversions (such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” or Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money”) or mildly depressing (as when Paul Verhoeven followed up his gloriously subversive “Showgirls” and “Starship Troopers” with the disappointingly straight-laced “Hollow Man”) but for the most parts, such films wind up being the kind of assembly-line silliness that a great filmmaker could direct in his or her sleep–and they oftentimes feel as if they did just that.

On the surface, Lee’s latest film, “The Inside Man,” looks like just such a commercial compromise. It is a straight-forward genre picture of a type that he has never attempted before and even the most finely-tuned auteurist radar would be hard-pressed to find any suggestions of Lee’s distinctive style for the most part. (Even the publicity for the film has downplayed Lee’s contributions–quite a turnaround for the relentlessly self-promoting director.) In a nutshell, this is a film that practically anyone in the D.G.A. directory could have taken charge of and made a perfectly acceptable thriller. The shocking thing about the film is that despite such generic trappings (or possibly because of them), Lee has responded to the challenge with one of his very best films to date–a relentless and thrilling hostage drama that relies more on brains than brawn to generate excitement, contains a gallery of excellent performances and even winds up making, in its own off-hand manner, keen observations about life in the strange melting pot that is post-9/11 New York.

The set-up should be familiar to anyone who has seen the likes of “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Heat.” A quartet of masked people, led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) storm a crowded Manhattan bank, take the customers and employees hostage and lock the entire place down. Before long, the block is turned into a circus of cops, reporters and bystanders and Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a cop currently under investigation over the disappearance of $100,000, is sent with partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take charge of the operation. Along with S.W.A.T. leader Darius (Willem Dafoe), Frazier begins to go about the usual moves from the hostage situation playbook–stashing hidden microphones in the pizza boxes being sent in–but soon begins to realize that these criminals aren’t acting like normal bank robbers. He becomes even more curious when the bank’s owner (Christopher Plummer) doesn’t respond in the normal way either–he sends in a high-powered P.R. woman (Jodie Foster) to the scene to protect certain interests of his, chiefly the one in one of the safety-deposit boxes that the criminals seems far more interested in than in the tons of cash lying around.

To say anything more about the contents of the box, Russell’s motivations or how Russell Gewirtz’s screenplay unfolds from there would be criminally unfair. (Frankly, I have probably said too much already as is.) Instead, I will observe that this is the rare thriller that manages to maintain its tension through an airtight plot than by throwing in ludicrous twists every couple of scenes. Aside from one plot hiccup–considering how damaging the items in the box are, it is unlikely that Plummer would have kept them around–there is never a time when the story is anything less than plausible. Early on, it appears that the brainy and level-headed Frazier and the more physical and impulsive Darius will spend the movie quarreling over their respective methods but that is taken care of in a refreshingly adult and direct manner. The true object of the robbery is concealed for a while in a manner that keeps viewers guessing and when it is finally revealed, the script smartly decides not to give Russell a simplistic reason for his motivations even though it would have been easy enough to give him an audience-friendly out. In a time when most thrillers go for the easy moves without hesitation, it is refreshing to come across one as smartly conceived as this one. (The only mystifying element is a framework that utilizes post-siege interviews with the various hostages that adds little, takes away some suspense surrounding the outcome and which could have been eliminated without anyone noticing the loss.)

Perhaps as a result, Lee has responded in kind with the most focused work in a long time. A filmmaker who often tends to bite off more than he can chew in even his better works, he tells this story in a clean and efficient style that is more suggestive of the likes of Sidney Lumet. (In fact, the one time that Lee reverts to one of his familiar stylistic bits–you’ll know it when you see it–it comes across as so jarring that it provides one of the few weak moments in the film.) At the same time, Lee hasn’t given us by-the-numbers hackwork either. More so than most filmmakers, he captures to the tiniest detail the look and feel of contemporary big-city life in all its facets–from the powers-that-be who sit in their elegantly furnished offices to the Sikh hostage who is released and immediately manhandled by a cop who sees his turban and immediately thinks Arab. He even works in some sly criticism over the mindless violence that is prevalent in most successful black-oriented entertainment–here, even the cheerfully violent Russell is taken aback by an astoundingly gory shoot-em-up video game, a “GTA”-inspired handheld called “Kill Dat Nigga,” that a youthful hostage nonchalantly plays with.

The level of performance is also surprisingly high for this type of film–while no one gives an Academy Award-level performance, everyone is remarkably down-to-earth and convincing in their roles. Washington is controlled and efficient as he struggles to keep the situation under control while trying to outwit his rival. Owen takes the cliched role of the uber-smart Eurovillain–the kind that has been a staple of the genre since Alan Rickman appeared in “Die Hard”–and manages to find some reasonably complex shading despite spending most of his on-screen time with his face largely hidden from view. And in just a few short scenes, Foster perfectly conjures up the character of a person who knows that she has a dirty job to do and who realizes that the best way to go about it is in the most direct manner possible. Among the supporting cast, Dafoe and Ejiofor make the most of their characters and a woman named Florina Petcu shows up for one scene–she plays an Albanian woman who is unexpectedly called upon to provide some information and is determined to make the most of it–and makes such a fun and sexy impression that I suspect that many viewers will do exactly what I did after the film–click on to IMDB in order to figure out who the hell she is.

Though it goes on perhaps a little too long for its own good in its final scenes, “The Inside Man” is a standout bit of popular entertainment that understands that a film can be both intelligent and exciting. And even though the notion of the usually distinctive Lee suppressing his style as completely as he does here is a bit disconcerting, I have to say that doing this film seems to have recharged something in him–he seems more connected to his work than he has in a long time. If he can now figure out how to harness that energy and focus and channel it into something more personal, it could signal his return to the ranks of great American filmmakers.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14180&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/24/06 00:13:15
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User Comments

9/21/17 morris campbell good imho 4 stars
10/29/13 The Big D Peee-eee--yew, did it stink! What's with trying to make bank robbers seem respectable? 1 stars
5/02/10 daveyt a mix of Spike and genre, style and substance. Entertaining enough 4 stars
10/06/09 Wade Frith I thought it was brilliant. It's very "read between the lines" u need to watch it carefully 5 stars
8/09/09 Jeff Wilder Commercial. But Lee's most purely enjoyable movie and an intelligent thriller with humor. 4 stars
9/30/08 Shaun Wallner I really enjoyed this film. 5 stars
7/29/08 chris f really good thriller enjoyed it very tense 5 stars
10/19/07 Double M Tense, gripping w/ sociopolitical innuendos BUT the upbeat Oceans 11 ending didn't fit much 4 stars
7/15/07 Ry crap... 2 stars
6/11/07 AJ Muller Really well done. Top notch cast, taut direction & clever script make this a winner. 4 stars
5/23/07 Matt Foster's pointless role does nothing to help lift this seen-it-all-b4 effort. 2 stars
1/10/07 Tracey Chambers loved it. thought it was smart and clever. 5 stars
1/04/07 Taylor Fladgate I can't believe these high ratings. The script was simple, from a high school production. 2 stars
12/15/06 Quigley A highly original heist film with great direction and acting. Clive Owen stole the show 5 stars
11/24/06 R.W.Welch Labyrinthian heist flick has slick production, above par acting. 4 stars
11/20/06 MP Bartley Lee wobbles slightly trying to keep all the balls in the air, but it's a grand effort still 4 stars
11/16/06 Steve Newman Best film for ages - see, see and see again 5 stars
11/15/06 jert not crap, not great, just okay hostage flick 3 stars
11/14/06 Bantu it was so entartaining! 5 stars
11/13/06 ras Good,entertaining, Spike tries to make his characters/story believable like ordinary people 5 stars
10/23/06 Clive Owen How did the MAIN bank robber KNOW about the box? 3 stars
10/13/06 jeanne Utter crap! From Denzel's endless smirk to Spike's community-theater directing: ugh 1 stars
10/12/06 John Chal Chaaiya Chaaiya Chaaiya!!! 5 stars
9/25/06 Indrid Cold A superior hostage movie, but nothing to write home about. 4 stars
9/04/06 Joe Smaltz Started pretty typical,bank/hostage. Started intrigue, and went nowhere, wouldn't recomend 3 stars
8/11/06 action movie fan excitng, clever procedural bank heist film--uiique for spike lee 5 stars
7/09/06 Gretchen Seitz Thanks, BrianO, for acknowledging that end "whimper"; I had thought I was missing something 3 stars
6/13/06 SteveO Smart, well-written, entertaining, solid cast - but a bit long. Spike, learn to EDIT! 4 stars
6/12/06 Michael Had low expectations, but Spike is back! 4 stars
5/05/06 alice entertaining ! 4 stars
5/01/06 jaibi joseph this movie is one of those intelligent genre 5 stars
4/26/06 The Outside Man Cool Flik! 5 stars
4/23/06 alien assassin intelligent thriller with a clever twist at the end 5 stars
4/22/06 Paul Coran Kept me on the edge of my seat. However, disagree that the crime was victimless. 4 stars
4/19/06 spacecowboy awesome characters 5 stars
4/17/06 Agent Sands Clive Owen plays one of the greatest movie criminals since the 1960s. 4 stars
4/16/06 Angela What a great character study. I went to see it again the following night just to see what c 5 stars
4/15/06 john bale Spike Lee's snappy direction lifts this heist thriller & certainly makes him mainstream 5 stars
4/08/06 Don held my interest, a little too long 3 stars
4/08/06 KingNeutron Awesome, except for the weird music. 5 stars
4/08/06 jack who wrote the dialog? boooring 2 stars
4/08/06 Koitus "Good" flick. A couple of obvious questions trip up the story-line, though. 4 stars
4/06/06 Helen Bradley Great story unnecessary ecessive vilonece 3 stars
4/03/06 don.bishop@ntlworld.com You know nothing! What about Chase I mean Case. In fact Frazier was ahead remember the pen 5 stars
4/02/06 Graham I think Spike Lee's just discovered subtlety. And I think it suits him. 4 stars
4/02/06 millersxing As suspenseful as Hitchcock's Rope in revealing the "perfect" crime 5 stars
4/01/06 Eevil Wolfie It was ok I guess. Got kind of boring after a while. 3 stars
4/01/06 vinyltap A truly remarkable flick. For one, I loved the robbers who used brains instead of brawn 5 stars
4/01/06 malcolm seemed like it would never end but one of lee's better ones. denzel - hypnotizing as usual. 4 stars
4/01/06 Suaa well made and entertaining but the plot twists are pretty obvious 4 stars
3/29/06 Matt Thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it 5 stars
3/29/06 Josh Standlee I loved the acting, but this was NOT an action movie. It really isn't worth anyone's time. 2 stars
3/28/06 Ole Man Bourbon Well made, but never goes anywhere. The story's even given away halfway through. 4 stars
3/27/06 Danny Johanson This movie was absolutely awesome and brilliant. 5 stars
3/27/06 Brian Meyer Absolutely the smartest action movie in years! 5 stars
3/27/06 Julie wow, so much going on and so satisfying. 5 stars
3/26/06 Arthur Klein A terriffic film from a great New York film maker. 5 stars
3/26/06 bobo really good. 5 stars
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  24-Mar-2006 (R)
  DVD: 08-Aug-2006



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