Monday, March 20, 2006

Review: Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man
124 minutes
Rated R (language and some violent images)

By Scott Mendelson

Inside Man is a perfect example of complete and total craftsmanship. It is not art, nor does it try to be, but it is an expertly oiled machine and under that qualification it is nearly a complete success. It also makes a compelling argument for the continuing pattern of high quality auteurs trying their hand at genre pictures and giving those pictures a unique professionalism. Spike Lee is one of the greats, who usually makes social issue films that may or may not involve race. By having him work in the classic bank robbery thriller genre, Lee makes a superior thriller while still peppering the film with intelligent drama and social insight that a lesser hack wouldn't have bothered with.

The plot, in brief: Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) walks into a major Manhattan bank with three cohorts and promptly holds up the joint. After hauling about fifty hostages to the back of the bank and forcing them to dress in identical outfits resembling their captors, Russell puts his plan into action. Meanwhile, Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are called onto the scene as the official hostage negotiators. After setting up protocol with Captain Darious (Willem Dafoe), our heroes are immediately perplexed by the lack of standard procedure shown by the robbers. Meanwhile still, the owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer, looking his age for once) is concerned about the contents of a certain safety deposit box, so he enlists a fix-it person (Jodie Foster) to watch over the situation. As the hours go on, complications seemingly ensue, secrets are possibly revealed, and, to use a cliche, things may not be what they seem.

As one can see from the above paragraph, the cast is uniformly stellar, and they all relish the meaty character roles that they are given. Denzel Washington is far less intense and serious than usual and he and Ejiofor (so frighteningly human as the genocidal government agent in Serenity) enjoy a real bond and chemistry that suggests genuine friendship. Jodie Foster has a blast playing a woman of mysterious morals and possible villainy. Only Owen fails to stand out, but only because his ice-cold and logic-based villainy is something we all know he can do in his sleep. Even the various cops and hostages are given sharp and amusing personalities.

Dabbling in his first big-studio thriller, Spike Lee relishes the chance to play with his usual themes in a subtler manner. Issues of class, race, and privilege are tossed about, almost in an off-the-cuff manner. The worthwhile question of whether one can in fact be redeemed, despite a past wrong, eventually becomes a core theme. Lee also isn't afraid to play with some of his classic cliches, and the classic Lee sorrowful saxaphone solo that enters the soundtrack about an hour into the movie will put a smile on fans of the director. Lee even finds a place for his classic man floats through the street shot (think the end of Malcolm X, where Malcolm rides in his motorcade seemingly well-aware of his impending doom), even if it is a bit shoehorned in.

The film feels distinctly New York-ish, as much humor is made of the countless ethnic groups and races that all live together in relative harmony. For such a gripping, serious-minded film, the writing and dialogue is often very, very funny. The humor is all rooted in character and works nearly every time. Ironically, one of the reasons that the film is so tense is due to the lack of brutal and sensationalistic violence. There is violence, but it is infrequent enough to be shocking when it occurs and the suspense is palpable, as one doesn't know if or when these robbers will snap again. Like The Score (2001), this adult thriller builds tension through old-fashioned suspense, rather than shocking us with unrealistic carnage and gore-filled action set pieces.

To be fair, the final fifteen minutes consists of about four false endings, none of which add anything to the picture except to drag it out well beyond its natural conclusion. Aside from that quibble, Inside Man is terrific, near-perfect example of what happens when you let an A-list director tackle B-movie genres with the same gusto. It's expertly paced, terrifically written, and wonderfully acted. By dialing back his ambitions, but not his passion or his qualities, Spike Lee has made his best film since Get On The Bus, way back in 1996. Inside Man is glorious grown-up entertainment and the best film of 2006 thus far.

Grade: A-

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