Judge Rafael Gamboa wants you to pay strict attention to what he says because he never repeats himself; he merely re-phrases things and hopes no one notices.
"A heist thriller like you've never seen."—Jim Ferguson, ABC
While the above charge may be misleading with its epic implication, it isn't lying. No, Inside Man won't blow you away, but it is certainly a unique, entertaining, and intelligent experience. This is the work of a director who is broadening his horizons and whose subtlety of craftsmanship is finally beginning to translate into subtlety of thematic commentary. While this film isn't as complex in that department as Spike Lee's previous film, 25th Hour, it is far from hollow despite its emphasis on entertainment.
Facts of the Case
The set-up seems harmlessly cliché: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, Training Day) is Detective Keith Frazier, a hostage negotiator who is called in to defuse a high-profile bank robbery planned and executed by criminal mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, Closer). The catch is that nothing is what it seems; the robbery is, as Frank Herbert would say, "a feint within a feint within a feint." The duel between these two is a rare one, as far as heist movies go: Dalton is the unreadable enemy whose motives and goals are surprisingly unclear, and it is Detective Frazier's task to discover what those are before he can try to stop him. Complicating matters further are the mysterious private interests of the bank's owner (Christopher Plummer, The New World) and an enigmatic power broker by the name of Madeleine White (Jodie Foster, Flightplan).
The script by first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz is a good one. He gives it the spice an old Hollywood hand wouldn't have been compelled to put into the genre, and it helps elevate Inside Man from a popcorn flick to a worthy and engaging film. It isn't a shocking departure from convention, but there are many small, deliberate little surprises that make the film much more entertaining than most heist fare, freeing it from the crutches of the high-impact action sequences many movies of its ilk lean on to generate off-the-counter suspense. The film also ends slightly ambiguously; the ends aren't all neatly tied up, and you're left with a vague feeling you weren't shown all the puzzle pieces. As a fan of deliberate character and narrative ambiguity, I enjoyed this aspect. I like being given the freedom to speculate on suggested possibilities; it gives films replay value. The dialogue is intelligent, believable, and fluid; you won't find yourself snickering in places the filmmakers didn't want you to. Some of the actions of the minor characters are questionable, but nothing too seriously implausible.
The cinematography is beautiful. Pairing Spike Lee's eye for movement with Matthew Libatique's arresting composition (he was Darren Aronofsky's cinematographer on Pi and Requiem for a Dream) is a match that may seem odd on paper, but whose results are truly satisfying. Combined with Barry Alexander Brown's editing, the film is given a unique narrative perspective. The film switches between subjective and objective styles in a deliberate fashion; it's as if we're watching from the eyes of an omniscient observer, one who already knows all the plot details that are about to enfold but who dearly wishes to understand the people involved. For example, the film opens with Dalton Russell speaking directly to the camera, as if he's dictating his autobiography. Immediately following is the opening credit sequence of the robbers making their way to the bank. Here, the film uses objective high angle shots of the robbers' van and different facets of the bank's architecture and clientele. These shots are edited together in an impatient fashion, crosscutting the moving van with the bank as if saying, "I know where you're going and what you're about to do, so hurry up and get on with it." The style switches again during more personal moments, choosing more subjective and immediate hand-held shots to drop the visual narrator back into the midst of it all. It's a paradoxical style that could easily be mistaken for inconsistency; don't be fooled.
The acting is easily the strongest aspect of Inside Man. Aside from Washington, Owen, Foster, and Plummer, this film boasts the talents of Willem Dafoe (The Aviator) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity), working alongside an impressive ensemble playing minor characters. It's a cast that barely needs to break a sweat to turn in exemplary performances. Throw in Spike Lee's skill for directing actors and you have an instant thespian feast. What's most impressive here is the psychological variety of all the hostages and criminals, and how much is accomplished with so little screen time.
And now on to the part that I usually enjoy the most in any film that bothers to go to this level: the subtext. Spike Lee has a history for being fairly blunt in his thematic treatment—much like Oliver Stone, except Lee has limited himself to mostly socio-racial concerns. Much of Lee's canon demonstrates an aggressive desire to ensure that a point is made, which in my experience tends to detract from his work. For instance, the ending sequence of Malcolm X is a preachy segment that seems to have no faith in the possibility that the previous two hours of film had done the character justice. This bludgeoning of a singular issue into the audience's heads, while arguably necessary at the time his films were released, nonetheless make a painful experience for those of us who catch on quicker to these things. With 25th Hour and Inside Man, however, Spike Lee has demonstrated a remarkable move towards succinctness and subtlety in his authorial voice. This film in particular deals with post-9/11 diverse racial insensitivity and, less obviously, sexism. The issues are raised clearly in seemingly tangential asides, but these concerns are more pervasive than they seem. For example, Detective Frazier and Madeleine are having a discussion on the sidewalk. Behind them on the wall is a sign that reads "9/11: We Will Never Forget." Unlike a similar tactic he used in Do the Right Thing, the sign is almost invisible as your attention is never forced onto it. Therefore, when noticed, it has a much more interesting effect upon you. The only thing in here that resembles his old approach is the prejudice an unfortunate Sikh man is subjected to and one policeman's unintentional vocabulary, but both these incidents manage to make their point without feeling forced—quite the opposite, they emerge naturally and believably, which is infinitely more disturbing.
As far as the DVD is concerned, it is surprisingly good for a one-disc non-special edition job. It comes with 25 minutes of interesting deleted/re-edited scenes, a making-of featurette, a quirky interview with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, and a Lee commentary track. The previews are not included in any menu selection, but they play automatically as soon as you put in the disc and dump you into the main menu when they're done. Curiously, after the end credits, the film drops you off in the special features menu, which I think is quite nice of them. The disc also offers three different spoken and subtitled languages, along with a Descriptive Video Services track for the hard of hearing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hmm. There's nothing hugely negative about this film, and the DVD's only flaw is that some of the bonus features are not subtitled. However, the reader should probably keep in mind that I'm reviewing this release after only one viewing, and this is the type of film that could either get better or worse under repeated scrutiny.
All in all, a very fine film. Not one of Lee's greatest works, but important because it is a stylistic evolution for a director who might finally live up to his promise of becoming a true master filmmaker. We shall see what Lee will do with the cinematic knives he sharpened on this project.
The court finds the defendant guilty of being a movie worth being kept prisoner on your DVD shelf. I certainly will.
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