Spike Lee’s new one may not be the incendiary filmmaker’s best, but it just might be his most purely enjoyable and sophisticated.
Make no mistake, Lee is still in his typically outspoken form, he’s still using film in the manner I described when reviewing 25th Hour — “like a wild-eyed protestor dousing himself with gasoline and striking a match.” And that’s an approach that’s as full of pitfalls as it is of potential — and some of those pitfalls crop up here, though not enough to sink the film. But it’s the chance of seeing him fall flat on his backside that makes his work so interesting.
Here, however, Lee has channeled his talents into a more or less standard — albeit sophisticated — heist film with a screenplay by newcomer Russell Gerwitz. It would be a mistake to think that Lee has buried his own concerns. Instead, those concerns have been woven into the fabric of the story, resulting in a socially conscious crime thriller where the two aspects are on fairly even footing.
There is a significant change in tone here, though. Lee here seems to positively revel in the racial diversity of New York City — something that informs not only the feeling of the film, but which is an essential part of the plot. In 25th Hour, Lee was one of the first filmmakers to directly reference 911, so it’s not surprising that here the atmosphere here is in full post-911 mode — only now that atmosphere has been normalized as a given. This atmosphere — the sense of both solidarity and suspicion that comes with it — gives the film its edge and places it above your average caper flick.
At bottom, however, Inside Man is an entertainment — an all-star (in the best sense of that term) heist picture with an agreeably light tone and a witty, sarcastic screenplay that’s almost as clever as it thinks it is. For a 129-minute movie, it’s also pleasantly devoid of pointless set-up. Gerwitz and Lee offer us only one scene — Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) addressing the camera and offering us the film’s essential piece of advice, “Pay strict attention to what I say, because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself” — before getting to the story. What a blessed relief this is in an age of movies that spend 30 minutes just to bring the viewer up to speed on the basics of a story they already knew from seeing the trailer! As for Russell’s advice about paying attention, one of the first places to pay attention lies in his phrasing in that very opening scene.
From here, it’s simply a case of taking over the bank, taking the hostages, dressing them in replicas of the robbers outfits, and getting hostage negotiator expert Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) on the scene, while strange machinations involving the bank’s owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), and a high-priced “fixer,” Madeline White (Jodie Foster) take place offstage.
The brilliance of the film isn’t in its clever plotting (especially since much of that won’t stand up under much scrutiny), but in the colorful characters and their interactions — not to mention the frequently very funny, yet alarmingly pointed, side issues of the film’s milieu.
No sooner do the robbers send out a hostage, Vikram Walia (Waris Ahluwalia, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), than the police take one look at his complexion and his turban and assume they’re dealing with terrorists. It hardly matters that the police determine that the man is a Sikh and not a Muslim, as well as an employee of the bank who peppers his protestations about being deprived of his turban with very Western epithets, since his treatment tends to mirror their offhand racial profiling. Yet the scene is not without its own sense of humor about the injustice of it all. Once the issue has been broached and the tension is broken, Frazier observes, “I bet you don’t have any trouble in getting a cab, though,” whereupon Walia admits, “It’s one of the perks.”
Moments like this — and a later scene where a kid is lectured about playing a violent video game and following the philosophy of Fifty Cent — make the film inescapably Lee’s work. It’s too bad then that Lee — whose stylish panache behind the camera is generally a plus — felt the need to indulge in one of his trademark tracking shots where a character is pulled along on the street without actually walking. This effect worked splendidly in Malcolm X with the same actor (Washington), but done here at a rapid pace merely looks rather silly, not in the least because Washington appears to be having trouble keeping his balance.
It’s a very small quibble, though, in a film blessed with so much unforced quirkiness and no less than five — Owen, Washington, Foster, Plummer, Ejiofor — powerhouse performances, not to mention a filmmaker in top form. Rated R for language and some violent images.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke