August 11, 2006
Spike Lee is the last filmmaker you’d imagine making a slick heist film for a major studio and yet that is exactly what he’s done with Inside Man (2006), a cleverly staged and executed thriller. What’s even more incredible is that this intricately plotted movie was written by first timer Russell Gewirtz. Lee fans worried that he’s sold out can rest assured that even though the filmmaker is working for a studio this is hardly your average director-for-hire gig. And, as if to reassure his fans, Lee has teamed up with Denzel Washington again – always a good sign as they work so well together (this being their fourth collaboration).
Dalton Russell (Owen) tells the story of the perfect bank robbery after the fact and so the rest of the movie plays out the details of what went down. Russell and his gang decide to rob a bank in the Wall Street district of New York City. They enter the building posing as painters and quickly and efficiently seal off all the exits and take control by force. A police officer on the outside notices smoke coming out of the bank and calls for back-up.
Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) and his partner Detective Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor) get the call to deal with this robbery/hostage situation. Lee does an excellent job of establishing their rapport early on by showing the familiarity and verbal shorthand between the two men. Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor have excellent chemistry together; it seems like they’ve been partners forever.
Crowds quickly gather as does the media, SWAT, the fire department and everyone else it seems. Inside the bank, Russell deals with the lying bank manager (why do these guys always cause trouble in heist movies?) in brutal fashion and this sets a tone of fear that keeps the rest of the hostages in line. Frazier works with police captain Darius (Dafoe) who alludes to a previous case involving the detective that went wrong. It’s the first hint that there is something else going on with Frazier and this will be a continuing subplot that pops up occasionally throughout the movie and makes us question his motivations.
Madeleine White (Foster) gets a call from the chairman of the board of directors of the bank, Arthur Case (Plummer). She’s an expensive fixer or power broker who knows how to leverage everyone. Case tells her that there is something very valuable in a safety deposit box in the bank. He enlists her services to ensure that no one touches this box or to make the contents therein disappear forever. White, incredibly, has pull with the mayor and uses her influence to get past the police barricades and actually talk face to face with Russell. However, the film basically boils down to a battle of wills between Frazier and the bank robber to see who can outsmart whom. While all of this is going on, Lee intercuts footage of Frazier and Mitchell interrogating various hostages after the fact.
As Lee did with the 25th Hour (2002), this movie too is informed by post-9/11 New York. One of the hostages is released and he’s a Sikh with a turban. The cops automatically assume he’s a terrorist because of the suspicious object he carries out of the bank. Then, under questioning he complains about his civil rights. In another scene, there is patriotic propaganda on a wall in the background. Lee doesn’t really rub our face in it but it’s there and he doesn’t ignore it.
Washington plays a smooth talking smart guy who is trying to figure out what the bank robbers, in particular Russell, are up to while dealing with influential bureaucrats, like White, breathing down his neck. He displays the ease and confidence of an actor in top form and is wonderful, as always, to watch. Clive Owen is also very good as the ruthless bank robber with a keen intellect. Is he messing with the cops? Is he following some sort of ingenious master plan? Both? It’s an interesting role for the actor as he spends a good chunk of the movie with his marquee good looks obscured by a mask.
One of the joys of watching Inside Man is seeing all of these A-listers interact with each other; all under Lee’s expert direction. The plotting is complex and brilliant as Gewirtz puts a new spin on the “perfect crime” while also paying homage to other heist movies like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Quick Change (1990). Best of all, like The Usual Suspects (1995), he ends the film with a delicious twist that is extremely hard to predict. Inside Man is a solid, thoroughly entertaining thriller with a brain – a rarity in Hollywood these days.
There are five deleted scenes that include more footage of Frazier and Mitchell interrogating the hostages and how they perceived what went down. There is also an amusing scene where Frazier and Mitchell discuss the meaning behind a Bob Marley song and also a collection of local news reports on the bank heist.
“The Making of Inside Man” is a pleasant notch above the usual electronic press kit material. Lee was attracted to the screenplay and how it cleverly updated the heist film. Producer Brian Grazer provided the director a way to work successfully with a studio, which he hadn’t done for some time. Also included are excerpts from a cast script read-through and rehearsals that sheds a little light on the creative process.
In what is quite possibly the most enjoyable extra on this disc, “Number 4” is a lively conversation between Lee and Washington about the four films they’ve done together. You can tell that they’re good friends by the way they joke with each other in a relaxed manner. This is a fun, engaging extra.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by director Spike Lee. For a director it’s all about making choices and Lee talks about particular shots in the movie and why he chose them. He speaks fondly of the cast without being to sycophantic about it. This isn’t the chattiest track ever recorded but Lee talks enough to make it worth a listen if you’re a fan of the man and his movies.