Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Inside Man


Engages the Crook in Us All

Ahh, the heist picture, a venerable Hollywood staple. They are still being made (The Score, Heist, Ocean’s 11 & 12), and typically feature all-star casts. It’s a given you’ll have clever bank robbers, less clever cops, an elaborate plan, and the big twist that saves the likeable crooks from prison. They are usually a lot of fun as well, as we root for the anti-heroes and joy to the techniques and technology they employ to pull off the crime of the century. Inside Man follows this tradition, and while it sticks pretty close to the formula, it’s an easy formula to like.

Dalton Russel (Clive Owen) walks into the Manhattan Trust Bank with a crew of four and promptly takes it over, hostages and all. The police are alerted, and a task force is quickly formed headed by Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). When one of the bank’s founders, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), learns of this development, he fears a dark secret could come to light and takes action. Case employs Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to work with the police to protect his interests. Frazier figures there is something wrong about this whole setup, on both sides of those locked bank doors.

Inside Man is director Spike Lee’s most mainstream movie to date, and he does a good job with this caper film. The characters are all well drawn, the story is interesting, and things develop and just the right speed as to keep us engaged without boring us. This is not a thriller, but a mystery, and it has good fun toying with our expectations of the genre. It even employs the oft neglected flash-forward! When was the last time you saw that in a movie?

The cast is first rate, and I really enjoyed watching them. Washington (The Manchurian Candidate) is excellent as always. He exudes so much charisma and determination as Detective Frazier, that you know he will solve this crime by sheer willpower. Owen (Derailed) is just as good, and considering he spends much of the running time behind a mask, that’s really saying something. I also liked Jodie Foster (Flightplan), who gets to play a slimy, corporate-type, which I’ve never seen her do (she nails it, of course). Willem DaFoe (xXx: State of the Union) even has a supporting role, but seems wasted. Perhaps he just wanted to work with Lee or Washington. I still liked him, but wished the script gave him more to do.

Since this is Lee’s baby, several of his trademarks permeate the story. It’s set in New York, and there is a very ethnically diverse group of supporting and bit players, which feels very authentic. Racial issues don’t surface, but do poke up their heads now and again. Some things about the way the police operate outside the bank don’t ring true (such as police advancing on the bank’s front doors in every master shot, and snipers who are constantly holding their rifles in firing position), but if Lee makes more and more of these types of films, the details will improve along with the overall effort.

The most fun you can have in a movie like this is watching the proceedings unravel like a well-oiled machine. Inside Man has enough of this cinematic grease to keep it running smoothly and prevent it from seizing. That’s saying something in a done-to-death genre like this.

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