Four people outfitted as painters pull off an airtight heist at Manhattan Trust and NYPD hostage negotiators Detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, "Training Day") and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Four Brothers") are sent to secure the release of their hostages from ringleader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, "Closer," "Derailed"). But the situation becomes increasingly mysterious as Russell outwits their every move. Things get stranger when a New York power broker, Madeliene White (Jodie Foster, "Flightplan"), requests a meeting with the robber and the Chairman of the Bank's Board of Director's Arthur Chase (Christopher Plummer, "Syriana") pays undue attention to every move. Keith Frazier begins to suspect he's up against an "Inside Man."
Director Spike Lee ("25th Hour," "She Hate Me") seems to be swinging between his own less and less compelling projects and studio fare such as this, and he just about hits this one out of the park. This smart, stylish and sexy crime thriller is the type of flick disgruntled cinema patrons have been waiting for.
Frazier's at an interesting crossroads. He's chomping for a promotion while under a cloud of suspicion over some missing evidence cash. In his personal life, he's been fending off his lady love Sylvia's (Cassandra Freeman) wedding wishes. It is clear from his unique jazzy retro fashion sense and the way that he turns around a dismissive Police Captain (Willem Dafoe, "Spider-Man 2," "Manderlay") that Frazier is comfortable and confident in his own skin, so he's thrown for a bit of a loop when Russell begins beating him at his own game. Then Madeliene White achieves what he has not - a meeting with the mastermind - and she will not disclose her agenda. Frazier's sleuthing eventually reveals who and what White is hiding, but when he eventually gains access to Russell, he bungles his chance with disastrous results.
Working with Oscar winning and nominated pros at the top of their game, director Spike Lee takes screenwriting newcomer Russell Gewirtz's story and almost succeeds in obscuring its weaknesses. Lee pumps energy into the urban tale, keeping us so involved in the twisty goings on that its easy to miss the fact that the object of White's mission should have been easily dealt with by its anxious owner years before or that ultimately, Dalton Russell remains as much an enigma at film's end as he is at its onset.
Denzel Washington's in the slightly cocky, slightly wiseass mode he used to such good effect in the underrated "Out of Time," here with a sheen of urban hipster cool. When he's thrown off balance, we see the unfamiliar sensation creep over his face and then the gears start to turn, his detecting genes stabilizing him. Clive Owen spends most of the film behind dark glasses and a mask, but nonetheless paints an intriguing mix of crusader and criminal. And its great to see the fortyish Foster exuding intelligence, athleticism and sex appeal while actually looking her age.
"Inside Man" is a prime example, too, of technicians at the top of their game. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, known mostly for indies like "Tigerland" and "Everything Is Illuminated," shows he's equally capable of doing slick studio fare while still retaining his signature touch, using his grainy, desaturated look for the post-action police interviews which pop up throughout the film. Editor Barry Alexander Brown ("25th Hour," "She Hate Me") keeps things clipping at a razzle dazzle pace without resorting to the MTV style editing that so many fall back upon. Above all, the aural soundscape of this film is outstanding, from the sound recording and editing to the inspired score by Terence Blanchard ("25th Hour," "Drum"). The film begins with bouncy Bollywood number "Chaiya Chaiya" and weaves its way into all types of motifs including the hint of an American Indian refrain from old oaters. The music is a cheeky parallel to the underlying racial, social and gender slurs which provides most of the film's spiky humor.
"Inside Man" is 2006's version of last year's "The Interpreter" - a well made adult commercial production that arrives unexpectedly early on the year's movie slate. It sure doubly shows up "Firewall" as the tripe that it is. *This* is how to make a bank heist thriller.
Four figures clad in painter’s coveralls and dark glasses enter the Manhattan Trust Bank, pull out some big guns and order everyone on the floor. The assault goes off flawlessly except the smoke bombs that are used to confuse those inside attract outside attention. Suddenly, the police surround the bank and a tense hostage situation is at hand. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is called in to negotiate but something about the crisis doesn’t ring true in Inside Man.”
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) doesn’t act like anything went wrong with his perfect crime. In fact, he and his three, masked henchman go through their paces with cool practicality. They take the keys and cell phones from all of the hostages – Russell proves he means business when he brutally beat the bank manager for holding out – then makes all 50 men and women strip to their underwear. They distribute overalls, masks and blindfolds to each, donning the same garb themselves, and Dalton finally gets on the phone to make his demands.
Outside, 100 heavily armed police encircle the building, making escape impossible. Frazier listens to Russell’s orders for two buses and a fully fueled jet plane and assures the man that everything is being done to accommodate his demands. But, there is something about the precision of the assault that does not jive with the gunman’s request, though the detective and his partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), can’t put their finger on it. Complicating things is the appearance of Madeliene White (Jody Foster), hired by bank chairman Case (Christopher Plummer) to protect the contents of a very secret safe deposit box inside the bank. The cat and mouse hostage game takes on new dimensions.
Spike Lee, working with the script by Russell Gewirtz, continues his eclectic filmmaking ways by taking on a taught action thriller that has little action but holds your attention throughout the two plus hour run time. There are thrills throughout “Inside Man” but they are of the more psychological, slight of hand kind. It’s a battle of wills as Russell appears to be trying to get out of his robbery gone wrong while Frazier works to delay the criminal’s threat to start killing hostages. All the while, we are shown Dalton and his crew making some sort of unexplained, very unusual preparations.
This is the kind of taut, intelligent writing and assured directing that makes “Inside Man” a huge cut above the usual Hollywood action thriller. Sure, Lee and company give us the usual flash of heavily armed cops rushing to and surrounding the crime scene to interest the eye. But, it is the story and its characters that are the real draw to this fine drama.
Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are perfect as opponents, like generals on a battlefield, who pit their considerable intelligence to outwit each other. Both actors give nuance to their respective characters with Frazier having a darker edge and Russell sometimes almost mirthful. These are not typical characters of good and bad and I easily invested myself in these two very different men.
The only question that I have with “Inside Man” is why did Gewirtz choose to include the subplot involving Madeliene White? This storyline ties together several of the plot threads, certainly, but the White character, played with too cool reserve by Jody Foster, is a distraction that the film could have done without. The pace, so well developed, is interrupted whenever Madeliene and her agenda enter the scene.
Techs are first class all around. Lenser Matthew Libatique gives visual excitement to the film with fast-moving cameras and varied points of view, including video surveillance, used to expert effect. Production design, by Wynn Thomas, art direction, by Chris Shriver, and costume, by Donna Berwick, and other techs are all exemplary and help make “Inside Man” a quality crafted work. This is a big film with a cast of hundreds and Spike Lee and his team before and behind the camera handle it beautifully.
Inside Man” will attract the average moviegoer looking for some thrills but the real audience is the film buff who wants something more than the usual, generic Hollywood action fare. (Compare this to, say, Firewall” and you’ll see what I mean.) Spike Lee does an artful job in creating a work that is intelligent, tense and entertaining. Not a bad hat trick. I give it a B+.
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