Inside Man

Whether by choice or accident, it’s impossible to tell by the coming attractions that the new crime thriller Inside Man is a Spike Lee joint. I guess it all depends on how you feel about Lee, who has etched a career with sharp, pointed social commentaries, but rarely works in the mainstream. Even Lee’s best films, Mo’ Better Blues and Do The Right Thing, have only been marginal successes.

So it comes as a surprise to see Lee working behind the camera on a big budget heist caper with all of the elements to guarantee box office success: Big stars, tricky script, authentic New York buzz. Less surprising is Lee’s ability to make the material his own, weaving familiar plot points into an intricate cat and mouse game. Russell Gewirtz’s debut script is a dazzling display of dramatic fireworks and suspense, but it is the little touches Lee adds that serve as the glue which holds this thriller together.

Once the heist and hostage situation has been established, Inside Man boils down to a series of power plays. There are the usual players, the disillusioned detective, the slick heist leader, the disgruntled local Captain, all anxious to make a move. Into the mix comes a mystery woman with connections, hired to protect the interests of a client and his safe deposit box.

Nothing is what it seems in Inside Man, and that is what makes it so enthralling. Some of Lee’s casting choices are questionable, but the film moves at such a clip we find ourselves being extremely forgiving. As the cat and mouse game is played out with precision, Lee keeps us distracted with little human moments which give the supporting players weight. If television shows like 24 have taught us anything, taking time out to give names and faces to hostages makes the situation more personal and intense.

Denzel Washington, a Lee regular, is outstanding as Detective Keith Frazier, rough around the edges, shaved head, troubled but resigned to the fact he’s stuck. When a gang of four take over a Manhattan bank and hold 50 people hostage, Frazier and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejoifor) are first to arrive on the scene. As the chief hostage negotiator, Frazier proves his street smarts by trying to stay one step ahead of the robbers.

What Frazier and other local law enforcement officials (including Willem Dafoe as the local Captain anxious to take back the situation) don’t know is they are not dealing with run of the mill bank robbers. Led by handsome Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the quartet work like a well-oiled machine, effortlessly disabling the bank’s security systems and forcing the hostages to dress exactly like them.

These little touches tip us off that Russell and his team are not what they seem, and our suspicions are constantly raised and then finally affirmed by the arrival of Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a power broker with important friends in high places. White’s presence, although unnecessary, adds another layer to Gewirtz’s cunning screenplay. The beauty of the script is how the writer sets up multiple streams of mistrust.

Frazier, by instinct, doesn’t trust Russell, who doesn’t trust Frazier. Likewise, Frazier doesn’t trust White, while White doesn’t trust Frazier to do the right thing. As Inside Man plays out, they’re right not to trust each other. Most bank heist films have a tendency to trip towards the end because they have nowhere to go, but Inside Man gets it right. Gewirtz doesn’t rest on his laurels, driving the film home with a ferocity that befits the first two acts.

I like smart heist films, and remember there is a difference between a heist and a caper film. Caper films, like Ocean’s 11, are noted for their elaborate set-ups and pay-offs. Heist films are fueled by their negotiations, stand-offs guaranteed to elicit high drama. What’s surprising is how much humor the filmmakers find in this situation, light moments perfectly situated as release valves for the plot’s tension. Some of these are reflections of New York’s melting pot, like when a man is accused of being a terrorist, or an obscure language finds an immediate interpreter.

There’s a lot going on, and Lee has picked a strong cast to carry us through the negotiations. Mostly obscured under a mask, Owen makes an engaging thief, a smart man who seems to enjoy the game. Foster is chilling as the woman who can fix any problem with one phone call, whose agenda is so matter-of-fact you wonder what she’s hiding.

Less believable is Christopher Plummer as the bank’s president, whose private safe deposit box holds a dark secret. This plot device requires a stretch of the imagination, but those flexible enough will forgive and forget.

Banking On Heist

Spike Lee Goes Mainstream for New Thriller

Inside Man

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe. Directed by Spike Lee. Rated R. 128 Minutes.

Larsen Rating: $7.00

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