After watching "Inside Man", starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, I tried to think of something, anything that didn't work. Honestly, I couldn't. "Inside Man" is an excellent, enjoyable film.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his crew walk into a large bank in the middle of the Manhattan financial district, dressed as painters, and begin to rob the facility. This crew is professional; Russell seems to have thought of everything, down to the infrared lamps to knock out the security cameras. Detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Dirty Pretty Things", "Four Brothers") are the assigned hostage negotiating team. Frazier has a dark spot on his record, so he is anxious for the opportunity to prove himself. As soon as Mr. Case (Christopher Plummer) hears the news of the hold-up at his bank, he enlists the help of power broker Madeline White (Jodie Foster); he needs her help to ensure that something in his bank remains in his bank.
"Inside Man" is a heist film. As soon as you realize that, you know a good example of the genre will be fun, light and breezy, keep you guessing and take you on a bit of a roller coaster ride. Check on all points. "Inside Man" is a great example of the genre.
I have never been a fan of Spike Lee's films. Film is an art form and the best films engage your imagination, feelings and emotion. Too many of Lee's films (and Oliver Stone's for that matter) bludgeon the viewer over the head with their message. Great films also have a point of view, but Lee's films always seem to portray the ONLY message, according to the filmmaker. If you disagree, screw you.
If "Inside Man" did not have Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster in it, I probably would not have seen it, because of director Spike Lee. I am glad I did see it because it is an excellent film. All four people are integral to the film's success, but the biggest surprise for me is Spike Lee.
Any successful heist film is going to have to move, keep the viewer engaged and provide a form of suspense. Lee clearly recognizes the rules of this type of film and runs with them, playing with them a bit, but keeping them intact. Addressing each of the conventions of this genre, he makes them his own. All of the key points are depicted, and depicted well, leaving no stone unturned. Of course, in a heist film, the stones are unturned when and if the writer and director feel like it. I think he realized he wasn't going to be able to solve the race problems in our society, with this film, and decided to have fun. This is his most mainstream, most commercial film.
This is not to say that Lee has gone soft. He incorporates messages and ideas into the framework of this convention. For instance, when a bank employee is released by Dalton, in disguise, the cops approach with caution. When they remove the mask, they reveal he is wearing a turban. One of the cops shouts "He's an Arab" and they tackle him to the ground. Later, an exchange between this man and Frazier leads to some telling comments about our country's current paranoia against anyone who appears different and also one of the funniest lines of dialogue I have heard in some time. Another memorable exchange concerns a video game and there are many more instances like this throughout. As the machinations of the heist are in progress, these moments help make the characters more real and the film even more enjoyable.
Like the best Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen films, Lee uses New York City as a character. A lot of the crew's plan depends on certain aspects of life in the large metropolis. At one point, Dalton walks right by a bank employee and they only give him a cursory glance. The city's melting pot of personalities and cultures also provides a rich backdrop for the film. Every character has been changed by life in New York and they change the story for good and bad. From cops who immediately set-up crowd barriers to keep the onlookers back, to a cop who is dedicated to his job, but racist due to his interaction with the public, to citizens who expect a little quid pro quo for helping the cops, everyone gives the film a richness sorely lacking from most multiplexes.
Denzel Washington's Detective Frazier is one of the actor's most memorable characters. Even with the blight on his record, he is confident, gung ho and ready for the challenge. Arriving at the bank, he meets with Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), the police officer in charge of tactical operations. Darius is used to working with someone else and immediately discounts Frazier's presence. But the Detective realizes this will not help the situation and quickly establishes his authority. Throughout, he is always thinking, trying to guess Dalton's next move before it happens. He proves very adept at this and equally good dealing with New York.
His character has good dialogue throughout, adding an air of levity. When we first meet Frazier, he is discussing his relationship with his girlfriend, in frank and suggestive terms, establishing his character very quickly. Frazier jokes with people throughout, while at the same time is ready to instantly become serious should the need arise, adapting to the changes. When he is interrogating people, this same tactic proves disarming, disorienting people, perhaps allowing some truth to get through.
Clive Owen ("Gosford Park", the unfortunate "Derailed") is very good as Dalton Russell, the mastermind behind the robbery. Clearly, Russell has thought through the entire plan, many times, in an attempt to ensure everything goes flawlessly. Dalton frequently seems tired of, or perhaps resigned to, dealing with less, intelligent people. He seems to treat people with slight scorn, deriding them because they are less intelligent.
Dalton is always clear and calculating. Through most of the film, he even appears to be more ruthless than you might think, adding an unexpected element to the heist. The film is also good about casting doubts on his character a few times; we begin to wonder if he has, in fact, thought of everything.
Jodie Foster's Madeline White is, essentially, a supporting character, but no less memorable. As a high powered power broker, Madeline thinks everyone is beneath her, including her clients for needing her in the first place. But that doesn't stop her from working for them, and extracting huge fees. The great thing about Madeline is that even though she is a powerful woman and disliked by everyone she meets, she recognizes this and doesn't care. She knows that everyone she meets; from the Detective, to the Mayor, to Mr. Case, to Dalton Russell, everyone no matter how small, will one day be a person who can help her make new clients, settle new business, and create new favors.
"Inside Man" is the best film I have seen so far this year. If Spike Lee continues to direct films like this, I might even become a fan and eagerly anticipate his new films.