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Inside Man

An Above Average Heist Thriller

Early in his filmmaking career, Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Clockers) declared an admiration for Woody Allen's remarkable one-film-a-year productivity. He's come close, building his career on provocative, challenging films that tackled race, class, and gender issues in contemporary America, but his fortunes have flagged as of late (She Hate Me anyone?). In directing Inside Man, Lee has set aside social commentary (and didacticism) for straightforward genre filmmaking, producing a slick, mostly entertaining, bank robbery/hostage drama.

Inside Man starts off with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the mastermind behind the heist, directly addressing the camera. He gives us a brief rundown of his intentions and where he's ended up, but suggests that the rest of the film, unfolding via multiple flashbacks, will tell us the "how". Inside Man then segues into Russell picking up his three accomplices in a van, with Russell slipping into the crowded bank dressed as a painter. The bank robbery goes smoothly, with one or two minor exceptions.

Tipped to a bank robbery in progress, New York's finest rush to the scene. Detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a detective with a pending internal affairs investigation on his mind, and his junior partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are sent to lead the effort to end the standoff with minimal loss of life. Frazier has to quickly get a handle on the situation inside the bank, figure out what the bank robbers want, and contend with Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), the "force-first, negotiate-second" head of the heavily armed tactical unit sitting outside the cordoned-off bank.

As it turns out, the chairman of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), has something of personal importance stored inside the bank that he desperately wants to protect. To that end, he pulls some strings with the Mayor, who, in turn, brings in a well-heeled power broker, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to intercede on Case's behalf. With hostages still in the bank and Russell's deadlines approaching (he's threatening to kill the hostages if he doesn't get what he wants), the battle of personalities is on, with duplicity, deception, and more than one twist along the way.

With a stellar cast that includes Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, and Christopher Plummer, expectations are high that the performances will be, if nothing else, highly watchable. They are, of course. Props, though, to relative newcomer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British-born actor appearing with greater frequency in stateside films (he was last seen here as the villain in Joss Whedon's Serenity, but has appeared in British films, television, and on stage for the better part of a decade). While Ejiofor's New York accent sounds authentic, Ejiofor tends to mirror Denzel's speech patterns and mannerisms, perhaps reflecting the junior officer's unconscious desire to emulate his superior officer's attitudes and behaviors. It's a clever, subtle acting choice that most viewers are likely to miss.

Russell Gewirtz's overly ambitious, convoluted plotting leads toward an overlong, post-climax denouement that explains everything that needs to be explained and gives the hero the expected moment of triumph and redemption. Editing down Inside Man wouldn't have solved the problem, since you'd still need a satisfactory resolution to the underlying conflicts between the characters. Then you have the problem of the film unfolding in flashbacks. Although the flashback structure undercuts suspense and momentum, there are a few noteworthy surprises along the way that play with and subvert audience expectations.

With Spike Lee at the helm, audiences have come to expect a certain level of social and political commentary. Lee usually takes an all text, no subtext approach to his subjects (e.g., race, class, and gender in contemporary America). Working from Gewirtz's screenplay, however, the social commentary and sermonizing are kept to a minimum. Lee's New York remains a chaotic, energetic multi-ethnic, multi-cultural mélange (although the power brokers are most definitely of the Caucasian persuasion). Lee thankfully keeps 9/11 references to a minimum, with the exception of a Sikh bank employee who gets roughed up by overzealous police officers (he later complains about being confused for an Arab). If you dig a little deeper too, you'll find another message: a negotiate first, violence second stance that proves to be the better course of action.

Overall, Russell Gewirtz shows above-average talent in plotting, character delineation, and dialogue (remarkable for a first-time writer). Likewise, Lee's (mostly) taut, lean direction proves what his often didactic, wordy oeuvre has tended to obscure: when he wants to be, Lee can be a top-notch director, grabbing his audiences through craft and storytelling rather than message or theme. In short, he knows how to entertain first and educate second (he's just preferred the opposite approach). More like this, please.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars