The shadow of cop movies from the past loom large over Spike Lee’s new joint, Inside Man . Classic police dramas like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon get namedropped, and since the story deals with corruption and a bank robbery, perhaps that makes sense. On the other hand, I couldn’t help thinking the filmmakers were clearing their throats, trying to fend of critical comparison to those gritty crime dramas—especially if that comparison turns out to be less than favorable. The story follows an elaborately planned bank heist, led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) which traps a large group of hostages in the bank for a couple of days. The cops, led by Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) try to bring the hostage crisis to an end, but become increasingly perplexed by the robbers’ actions and ulterior motives. Adding to the confusion is the head of the bank’s board of directors (Christopher Plummer) who hires a mysterious power player named Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to protect certain interests of his that may be compromised by the robbery.
Calling this film a Spike Lee joint is a bit of a misnomer; this is one of the few films the auteur has directed that he did not write the screenplay for (it was penned by first-timer Russell Gewirtz). The film starts off great, with one of the best opening title sequences in recent memory: the words rotate on screen like the lock on a safe while a catchy, pulsating bollywood-meets-pop song plays in the background. The song, which also plays over the closing credits, establishes Lee’s multi-culti take on life in New York and it’s a delight to see him apply his downtown filmmaking sensibilities to an uptown story. The first quarter of the film is snappy and light on its feet, moving the plot along at a brisk pace. The movie looks great, and the native New Yorker Lee clearly knows how to use the city environment to create atmosphere. The camerawork is also top-notch; it is interesting without succumbing to the look-at-me showiness that plagues some of Martin Scorcese’s films.
The fun begins to dissipate once the robbery is established. A flashback device is introduced that undercuts some of the suspense and drags the movie out. What should be a tightly wound game of cat and mouse instead starts to meander. Gewirtz leaves loose ends left and right in his script, with some fairly incredible plot holes along the way. First and foremost, we never learn much about Owen’s character or his motivations. Owen specializes in these kind of glowery, intelligent thugs and he does not disappoint here—the problem is we never find out who he is so we’re never really sure what’s at stake for him.
A similar issue faces Washington’s detective character: he’s so confident, so good at his job, that he never has any flaws or moments of uncertainty. Also, I’ve seen Washington trot out his macho swagger a few too many times. His role and his work here are overly familiar and he definitely waxes hammy more than a few times. Furthermore, a subplot involving his fiancée (who is, ahem, a good twenty years younger than Denzel) is laughably ridiculous. Whenever the fiancée appears, an oversexed horn soundtrack plays in the background and she purrs about how badly she wants Denzel to come home and take her to bed. This kind of sidebar sex kitten may have worked in Shaft or Foxy Brown thirty years ago, but it seems like an anachronistic distraction here. Also, the cop dialogue, particularly Denzel’s, feels like it is trying too hard to be tough.
Finally, we have Foster, whose character’s purpose and function are never fully explained. Foster is good actress, but she is horribly miscast as a Wall Street vampire. She clearly seems to be having fun playing a kind of “bad guy,” but her performance is affected, one-dimensional and thoroughly unconvincing—and I couldn’t help wondering why she would want this part in the first place. This kind of soulless, corporate megabitch might have been a great part for a woman in the eighties, but haven’t we progressed beyond that?
In the end, Inside Man’s problems are of identity and character. Is it an old-school 70s crime story, a slick 80s power melodrama, or an overproduced 90’s action movie? The filmmakers never decide and more importantly, they don’t create opportunities for their characters to undergo change. As a result, we don’t necessarily care how the bank robbery ends, who lives or dies, or who becomes hero and who goes down—and that is the real crime of Inside Man.
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