March 30, 2006


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Inside Man (R)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

Spike Lee – remember him? He can make a damn fine movie as he proves in the tight bank heist thriller Inside Man.

Lee is only the director here, not the writer as he was on Do the Right Thing or Malcolm X, but there is a Spike Lee-ness to the script – dialogue that sounds like something a person would actually say, a New York City that seems like actual New York City (exciting and big even as Lee admits its imperfections and limitations) and social commentary that sneaks up when least expected, smacks you in the head and runs off to leave you pondering. Lee’s stand-out ability to craft a good story, especially one that has elements of the thriller about it, catches me by surprise every time I see a Bamboozled or a 25th Hour. The construction of his films is so precise that even when considered in a group of the very best filmmakers, Lee’s attention to detail stands out.

“Pay strict attention” is one of our first instructions in the film, words spoken by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). Dalton is a bank robber who, as he himself tells us, plans the perfect bank robbery. He and three masked companions enter the bank dressed as painters (faces covered and carrying big bags). They are able to disarm the cameras and they shuffle the bank customers and employees into a series of offices near the vault. Within moments of the robbery’s kickoff, the police, including hostage negotiator Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), arrive on the scene and cordon off the block. Dalton asks for some bank robber standards — food for the people in the bank, a ride to the airport and a jet, fueled and ready to go. Frazier is used to these sorts of demands from criminals but there are other signs that point to something weirder afoot. The first officer to speak to one of the robbers reports hearing a strange accent (is it Arab?) and a bug the police send inside the bank picks up another language (Russian, perhaps, or Polish?).

And then hard-as-nails Madeline White (Jodie Foster) shows up with the power of the mayor’s office behind her. Her manner is that of a ruthless but unexcitable corporate lawyer but her smile suggests something infinitely more malevolent. We first see her shepherding a young man trying to purchase some property. She refers a couple of times to his uncle and even before we’re certain, we have a pretty good idea who she’s talking about and the kind of company she keeps. When Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), head of the bank currently being robbed, calls her up to ask for her help in the matter, we know that whatever he’s keeping in the safe-deposit box he wants her to protect, it has to be worth far more than the ottoman-sized blocks of money in a nearby safe. All diamond-hard cheeriness, she tells Frazier that she wants to speak to the robbers, one on one.

The movie does some standard thriller stuff and then some not-so-standard stuff but all of it with really impressive precision that makes even some of the more unbelievable elements of the story work. Inside Man has fun with its story, the kind of fun that comes of having top-notch actors get into their parts enough that they can say as much without dialogue as they do with (we see none of the slumming it that made Firewall, for example, such a chore).

Even the bits of film not directly in service of the caper work — when the odd hostage is released, police will handcuff and question him to see if he’s really a victim or a criminal in disguise (the robbers dress themselves and all of their hostages in the same identity-blurring coveralls). One of the men released is a turban-wearing Sikh, provoking a little extra harshness from the cops — one of whom blurts out “it’s an Arab.” Later, the Sikh goes off on a rant about how he’s sick of the discrimination, post Sept. 11. “I’ll bet you can get a cab, though,” Frazier offers. “I guess that’s one of the perks,” the other man answers without a beat. Race — without making it anything close to the centerpiece of the movie, Lee doesn’t allow it to be ignored. Further proof that even in the little moments, Lee keeps his movies close to the ground. A

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