When well-organised robbers, led by the highly intelligent Dalton Russell (Owen), take hostages in a Manhattan bank, NYPD detectives Frazier (Washington) and Mitchell (Ejiofor) are assigned. It’s not long before the bank’s owner (Plummer) surfaces with ruthless playmaker Madeliene White (Foster) to do his bidding.
Spike Lee has come a long, long way in the last two decades. His 19 feature films encompass no-budget indies (She’s Gotta Have It), an epic biopic (Malcolm X) and even a musical (School Daze), and he remains one of ’s most audacious, ferociously independent filmmakers.
In these respects, the slick, commercial Inside Man is barely recognisable as a Spike Lee picture, but that’s not to say it doesn’t measure up; au contraire, it’s a marvellous, carefully honed thriller that hurtles smoothly along at the pace of a bullet train. If Do The Right Thing, with its jarring blocks of colour, was his Picasso, then this is his Da Vinci: carefully planned and crafted in sharp detail.
It’s also the safest film he’s ever made — a pure genre flick, deftly taking inspiration from great heist films. Like its protagonist, it almost never deviates from a well-laid plan; Lee has considered everything, and his first contingency is a staggeringly classy ensemble cast. Denzel Washington (in their fourth collaboration) makes a stock character — a charmer prone to rash mistakes — into a rich, believably flawed one. It’s as if Lee has requested the Washington of blockbusters past, and retrofitted him with nuances from their earlier work together. Chiwetel Ejiofor, meanwhile, offers fine support as his partner — watching he and Washington riffing together in a series of flashforwards, as they grill potential suspects, is a particular treat.
There are those who accuse Clive Owen of being one-note, but they’d have to admit it’s a bloody good one, and nobody could do it better. Once again he exhibits that trademark steely control, achieving an air of calculation and potential menace even when he’s behind dark glasses and a mask.
As for Jodie Foster, well, she’s having a field day as one of the best unscrupulous bitches we’ve seen on the big screen since Linda Fiorentino said yes to The Last Seduction. Foster’s Madeliene White is an interesting new take on the shady, backroom dealmaker. In the movies that inspire Inside Man, this character would be a shady lizard of a man operating from an ancient, smoke-filled office; Ms. White is a designer-outfitted Machiavellian machine with luxury office space who openly wheels, deals, wines and dines with the Mayor of New York City.
It’s a pity, then, that Russell Gewirtz’s script isn’t quite as smart as his characters or cast. Owen’s Russell forewarns us to pay attention (because he “chooses his words carefully, and only says things once” — a line which Lee unfortunately chooses to use twice), but there’s not much that
will get past anyone who’s concentrating. At one point the whole game is nearly given away by a single shot. Thankfully, though, neither that nor a correct guess will spoil the fun, because Gerwitz at least ensures there’s some wonderfully original elements to the plan. In the tradition of
the genre, by the time Denzel has put the pieces together, you may find yourself struggling with muddy motivations and fresh doubts, but this just adds to the entertainment value — after all, you have to have something to talk about over a post-movie beverage...
It’s certainly a Spike Lee film, but no Spike Lee Joint. Still, he’s delivered a pacy, vigorous and frequently masterful take on a well-worn genre. Thanks to some slick lens work and a cast on cracking form, Lee proves (perhaps above all to himself?) that playing it straight is not always a bad thing.