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Inside Man
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by Todd LaPlace

"Not the right thing."
3 stars

“Heist,” “The Score” and “Ocean’s Eleven” have three things in common. One, they are all about big thefts. Two, they all have stellar casts (even Marlon Brando showed up in one). Three, they’re good, not great, movies. “Inside Man” is about a theft. And it’s got a great cast (when one of the talented supporting players was also in “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” you know you’ve cast well). It’s just too bad that it also isn’t better than just good.

“Inside Man” is a mess of a movie. It should be noted, however, that director Spike Lee has already shown he can effectively work a mess of a movie into a stirring piece of cinema with “Do the Right Thing.” There are no specific rights or wrongs in that racially-charged drama, and every piece of mise-en-scène is designed to add to the post-screening debates and discussions. That was a fun mess to sift through. “Inside Man” isn’t a fun mess; it’s just a chaotic mess. We’re not asked to challenge our beliefs in the unraveling. Rather, we’re simply asked to figure out what the hell happened over the past two hours.

That’s, though, not necessarily a bad thing. Taking the reigns from “Heist,” “The Score,” “The Good Thief,” The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Italian Job,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve” (among many, many others), “Inside Man” is actually a pretty nifty little caper flick. It’s got most of the requisite elements, but none of the same narratives. Luckily for us, just about the only thing missing is a retiring thief, looking for just one last score, which already makes “Inside Man” infinitely better than the rest of the list (seriously, six of the seven have this as a plot element). Perhaps Lee’s best twist of the old clichés is providing an immediate awareness of the “twist.” A lot of heist movies provide a cool theft, but then provide some elaborate scheme that throws everything out of whack, and although we always know it’s coming, these films always expect us to be surprised. With his title alone, Lee lets us know something isn’t quite right.

So the real question of “Inside Man” is who’s working multiple angles? There’s a mild attempt to infuse the movie with a racial subplot surrounding the stolen items, but it’s nothing but a red herring. Like the uranium in his own classic “Notorious,” Hitchcock would call the items the MacGuffin — elements that further the story because of their importance to the characters, but that lack significant meaning to the audience. We don’t care about the props; we’re more interested in the people. I must admit that Lee’s movie might have worked better as a mystery — we can solve the crime before the finale if we pay attention to the little slips of the tongue and watch for subtle changes in the scenery — largely because we’re shown the elements, but we’re never invited to engage with the story. We’re just voyeurs to the crime, watching the three sides scrambling to beat the others to the punch.

The one with the most to lose is Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a police negotiator already under investigation by internal affairs for missing drug money. Frazier is one of those cliché throw-out-the-rules cops who work entirely on instinct, which allows him to see through the entire conspiracy with surprising accuracy. Along with his partner Bill Mitchell (an underrated Chiwetel Ejiofor), Frazier is one of those strictly-cinematic unflappable detectives that can simultaneously profile the criminals and strategize their defeat, all in the same thought.

They, obviously, underestimate the criminals, three anonymous robbers called Steve, Stevie and Steve-O and their leader, Dalton (Clive Owen). Dalton, like Frazier, is a hackneyed movie thief, one that has an intimate knowledge of engineering, weapons, police procedure, negotiating, breaking and entering, lock picking, hostage taking, etc. He’s the one obviously calling the shots, and he’s just waiting for the cops to catch up with his plan. Did rookie screenwriter Russell Gewirtz actually believe we’d swallow this as original? Both Washington and Owen are skilled enough to make it look interesting, but we’ve seen their characters a million times before. Frazier spends a few hours unraveling the complicated plot, all while Dalton puts his plan into action, always a few steps ahead of even the smartest cops.

Just about the only thing that makes “Inside Man” better than the average crime caper is the appearance of a third entity. Madeline White (the excellent Jodie Foster) is one of those high-powered executives with a mysterious job title that lets her get impromptu meetings with the mayor of New York. She’s also one of those people that can walk into a tense hostage situation and get a quick private meeting with Dalton. She was hired by the bank manager (Christopher Plummer) to protect his personal safety deposit box at any cost. We’re not sure what’s in the box, but we do know that the manager wants to keep it safe, Frazier doesn’t know it exists and Dalton would definitely be interested in its contents.

In case you can’t tell by the excessive amount of story and characterization necessary to understand the plot, the movie is a structural nightmare. Lee leaps from scene to scene — from Frazier arguing with his captain (Willem Dafoe) to the criminals digging in the store room to White organizing an apartment for Osama bin Laden’s nephew to the detectives interviewing a hodgepodge of surviving hostages — without any regard for narrative organization. Lee’s problem is that he’s never quite sure what shots work in this type of mainstream film. The green, grainy look of the interviews being the scenes into stark reality, but the shot that features Frazier riding along a dolly to the bank door is oddly out of place, especially in a crime film.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of “Inside Man” is expecting more depth from a Spike Lee Joint. The vast majority of his films, from “Do the Right Thing” to “Bamboozled,” are intimate looks at race and the underrated “25th Hour” dealt with drugs and crime in the U.S. “Inside Man,” though, largely plays like just another caper film. There are moments he flirts with his social past — the mention of bin Laden, incorrectly labeling a Sikh hostage as Arab and dealing with the difference between the treatment of Arabs and blacks in this country — but Lee never follows through. Even the name White, which is never incidental in a Spike Lee movie, never gets more than a passing mention. She is that overly ornate force that is charged to step down from her ivory tower (her New York office) and mediate a dispute that doesn’t involve her, although she’s using her power purely for personal gain. Huh, maybe Lee is making a political movie after all.

There are so many great elements in “Inside Man” that it’s that much more disappointing that the whole doesn’t work. The cast is amazing. The director is talented. The story is interesting. If only the film made more sense.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14180&reviewer=401
originally posted: 04/09/06 03:03:50
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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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