Movie review by Greg Carlson
Even though its opening titles indicate that “Inside Man” is a “Spike Lee Joint,” it is certainly one of the most conventional of the talented director’s features. This is not a bad thing, given that many of Lee’s wildly inventive films buckle under the strain of the filmmaker’s wide-ranging ambitions and devil-may-care, damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Produced by Brian Grazer and crafted from a script by newcomer Russell Gewirtz, “Inside Man” is immediately identifiable as studio fare – particularly in the toplining trio comprised of Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen – who give delicious star turns.
A classic bank heist/hostage negotiation movie that makes several nods to Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Inside Man” ably fulfills its genre expectations as Dalton Russell (Owen) directly addresses the camera at the film’s outset with a promise that he has planned and will execute the perfect robbery. Descending with a team of accomplices on a Wall Street-area savings and loan, Russell cleverly forces the hostages to dress in the same painter suits and masks worn by the thieves, which makes telling the victims from the perpetrators hopeless. By the time detectives Keith Frazier (Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrive on the scene, it’s clear that Russell has an arsenal of tricks up his sleeve.
The cat-and-mouse game between Russell and Frazier becomes very sticky once the mysterious Madeline White (Foster) gets a pass from the mayor to the middle of the unfolding action. A power-broker with connections to seemingly every wealthy and influential person in New York City, White appears to make her living by solving impossible problems with the utmost discretion. Frazier resents the intrusion of this civilian “fixer,” but his hands are tied, and White also possesses knowledge of an internal affairs investigation of Frazier over some missing evidence loot.
Lee’s films often depict an electrifying blend of social commentary and engrossing performances, and “Inside Man” is no exception. The movie’s supporting cast, which includes Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer, also brims over with memorable bit players. Woody Allen aside, few filmmakers are as closely identified with the Big Apple as Lee, and the diversity of characters who parade through “Inside Man” offers the director prime opportunities to comment on race and class. Additionally, Lee largely eschews any focus on media coverage of the standoff, cannily sticking with the personalities at the heart of the emergency (and anchored by an outstanding Washington).
Longtime Lee admirers are provided with all sorts of eye candy, especially by way of cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s dazzling camerawork. Terence Blanchard, who has collaborated with Lee more than fifteen times, provides yet another beautiful and robust score, and Wynn Thomas (10+ projects with Lee) captures all sorts of pleasing details with his stellar production design. Sharp-eyed fans will spot several visual nods to Lee’s own body of work, including stacks of pizza boxes from Sal’s Famous and some “Bomb” malt liquor that appeared in the ferocious satire “Bamboozled.” While Lee is not likely to become a regular director for hire, “Inside Man” is so much fun that one hopes he’ll occasionally take a studio assignment between his own originally developed ideas.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/27/06.