Inside Man

March, 2006, Mystery

Iconoclastic director Spike Lee goes mainstream with this briskly-paced thriller, employing a big-name cast (Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe) and lots of pyrotechnics to dissect a highly unorthodox bank heist. Although the movie starts well, an accumulation of unexplained improbabilities and the director's penchant for flashy camera work ultimately take the edge off what could have been an even niftier film. That said, Inside is hands down the best entry in its class thus far this year. 

Washington plays Detective Keith Frazier, a hostage negotiator called in to oversee negotiations with a group of thieves lead by Dalton Russell, (Owen) who has commandeered a bank in lower Manhattan.  Lee presents the takeover with staccato crispness, following terrified bank personnel and customers as they're herded down into the basement, forced to dress like their Ninja-clad captors and then separated into small groups in the building's subterranean offices. The vault gets breached, exposing lots of cash and safe-deposit boxes, but the crew works at a slow, deliberate pace, with no suggestion that they're in any hurry…

By the time Fraizer & his partner arrive on the scene, the police commander (Dafoe) has sealed off the area and brought in enough fire-power to quell a minor insurrection. But when the detective attempts to contact Russell and his crew inside the bank, they seem completely disinterested in working out a solution to the standoff. What in the hell is really going on? 

Lee, working from a script from first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, inter-cuts the storyline with hostage interviews which have obviously occurred after the fact; while this technique is initially disorienting, it heightens the suspense while adding tantalizing clues about the criminals' real intentions, which become clear only when Madeline White (Foster) uses her highly-placed connections with the mayor to gain entry to the bank in order to conduct some highly unorthodox negotiations with Russell. At this point, the wheels come completely off the plot.

Improbabilities are the stuff from which this sort of film is made of course; (think Cary Grant in North by Northwest or Harrison Ford in The Fugitive) but it's the judicious use of them which separates credibility from mere contrivance. A less audacious director would have blanched at the task of making an audience swallow as many unsubstantiated twists as Lee presents here-suspending disbelief is one thing, but ignoring it altogether is something else again. 

As White, Foster steals more than Owen's entire crew; a highly accomplished actress with a string of brittle, unsatisfying roles in the past few years, Foster plays White with condescending assurance, blending sarcasm, mocking sexuality and real menace in a dazzling display of talent. At age 44, she looks terrifically sexy and exudes a mesmerizing aura of power. Move over Bette Davis; there's a new mean snake in Hollywood. It's a shame this kind of movie isn't taken more seriously around awards time; here's a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination if ever there was one.

Washington also provides a nice turn as a cop who's equal parts stolid gumshoe and hip-hop cool; as he demonstrated in Man on Fire and Training Day, the actor has the capacity to make his intelligence and good looks suddenly veer off the typical hero track into something much scarier; he uses that judiciously here, always threatening to display a side of his character that hints at personal corruption, making him not quite as appealing as we'd like him to be.

Owen acquits himself well too; albeit in a smaller role as do Plummer as the bank's Chairman and Dafoe as the bureaucratically challenged police captain who ultimately must determine whether or not to end the standoff by assaulting the bank with a limited amount of collateral damage. The movie covers these climatic tasks with a pair of nifty plot twists before completely losing credibility in a preposterous denouement. 

But if the final destination is bogus, the trip you take to get there contains enough excitement to make this one worth your time and money. If for no other reason, see it for Foster's performance as the stunning, self-assured bitch any insecure male will love to hate.

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