Inside Man (2006) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language and some violent images
Running Time: 127 min.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Plummer, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe
Director: Spike Lee
Screenplay: Russell Gewirtz
Review published April 10, 2006

Denzel Washington (The Manchurian Candidate, Man on Fire) plays New York police detective Keith Frazier, given a choice assignment that might see him get a promotion should he succeed.  The case?  A bank robbery and hostage situation featuring armed and masked assailants that dress up their hostages in the same garb they wear.  As Frazier tries to negotiate a peaceful resolution, it becomes apparent that the lead bank robber (Owen, Derailed) just might have the upper hand, as he seems to know all of the tricks of the trade.  But is it an open and shut bank robbery, or could this have something to do with what's in safety deposit box 392, with possessions that the wealthy bank owner (Plummer, Syriana) wants very much to keep hidden away for good?

Although this is clearly a Spike Lee (25th Hour) joint, Inside Man represents Lee's most mainstream work to date.  This doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad film, as he has been very hit-and-miss as far as his more artistic pursuits, and his last effort, She Hate Me, had some proclaiming that his glory days as a great screenwriter might be behind him.  Lee didn't write the screenplay for Inside Man, although anyone that knows Spike knows that he very much writes and alters a great deal of the dialogue during the filming stage, fleshing out the characters and motivations in a way that allows Spike to do his own thing. 

Perhaps in the hands of a lesser talent, Inside Man might have been a forgettable heist thriller, with a typical cat-and-mouse chess game between the lead cop and lead crook, going through predictable motions until the inevitable twist ending.  Lee masterfully turns his thriller into more of a character study, giving more emphasis to the cop than the crook, allowing us to get a rare glimpse of the pressures and motivations of the man in charge of trying to nab the crafty criminals for more than reasons of nobility.  Lee employs a nonlinear approach that proves to be much more than a gimmick here, as we more or less know the outcome.  All that's left is to fill in the blanks as to who the bank robbers are, why they are doing what they do, and just what is in the contents of the mysterious safety deposit box that has a millionaire willing to pay almost any price to keep it hidden.

Lee's knack for richness in characterizations as well as his adeptness in bringing out the feel and flavor of downtown New York City are the main assets in this thought-provoking drama.  Every character, from the main leads to the one or two line hostage character, is fully realized, allowing for a handful of poignant moments of social commentary underneath the main drama that makes this one of the smartest films of the year.  From racial profiling to video game violence, Lee adeptly never dumbs down his film into anything remotely approaching standard, cliché fare. 

Not everyone is going to be in tune with Lee's little musings and moments of commentary, especially those looking for nothing more than a crackerjack thriller.  There is a slight quirkiness to it that does make the production uneven from time to time, and with so many prominent actors in supporting roles, the expectation is that each one should have more meaning to the core story (the Jodie Foster and Willem Dafoe characters don't necessitate marquee caliber actors).  Perhaps the strongest negative reaction will be due to the confusing themes of the film, as many different facets are explored, and while many of these are important, perhaps a more focused effort would have given them the power to drive home the important points in a less diffuse manner.

The trailers and ads for Inside Man make little or no mention of Lee's involvement, probably because at this point in his career, you are either a Lee fan or you have learned to ignore his ambitious but sometimes overbearing output.  In truth, this is easily his most accessible work, and like Woody Allen's Match Point, the auteur finds a way to take an average film and make it something special, weaving a complex, albeit messy, tapestry of many interesting ideas, enough to make this one of the more thoughtful mainstream crime dramas to come out in recent memory. 

Qwipster's rating:

©2006 Vince Leo