Spike Lee’s new film isn’t much more than a conventional cat-and-mouse tale about a master bank robber (though one with a hidden agenda) and the police negotiator (on thin ground with his superiors, of course) trying to save the civilians he’s taken hostage, but it’s so handsomely mounted, well cast, and expertly crafted by the director, his cinematographer (Matthew Libatique) and editor (Barry Alexander Brown) that it’s far more enjoyable than it has any right to be. In fact, “Inside Man” is so spiffily done that even a huge logical hole at the center of Russell Gerwitz’s plot–the complete lack of explanation about how the chief crook could possibly have obtained the detailed knowledge he needs to have planned his scheme–doesn’t derail it, though it will make the movie seem, in retrospect, a lot less pleasurable than it was during the unspooling.
The picture opens with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) addressing us directly to announce his intention to rob a big Wall Street bank, followed by an excitingly-paced sequence in which the building, chock full of colorful customers, is taken over by his gang, all dressed in masks and painters’ uniforms. They quickly make all their hostages dress in similar duds to obscure who’s who and isolate the terrified folks in small groups. Meanwhile a perimeter is efficiently set up around the bank by New York’s finest, and slick, cocky hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), along with his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is assigned by his boss (Peter Gerety) to lead the squad on site, despite the fact that he’s under investigation by the IAB for supposedly absconding with a cache of drug money. It’s only with difficulty that Frazier manages to establish communication with Russell, who demands busses and a plane to ferry away him, his confederates, the prisoners, and the loot. But Frazier suspects that all is not as it seems. Might the criminal actually have some entirely different plan? Could it involve the bank’s chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who–we learn early on–has something hidden away in one of the safety deposit boxes, and is so anxious to keep it secret that he hires master fixer Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to make sure it remains undisturbed? (She, in turn, pressures none other than the mayor to persuade Frazier to give her carte blanche in dealing with Russell.) Why else would that subplot be here?
What transpires isn’t all that surprising (since early on in the picture excerpts from post-factum interviews with survivors tell us that things do not conclude in a bloodbath) or terribly plausible (largely because of the major omission in the narrative noted above). And some viewers may find the ending entirely too cynical; it used to be de rigueur that in a heist picture like this, all the right people would somehow get their just deserts, not merely one or two, and the hero would be unblemished. (Think of “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” for example.) But “Inside Man” makes up for what it lacks in logic by creating a strong New York atmosphere and investing the action with lots of visual pizzazz (including a couple of Lee’s patented vertigo moments in which actors are sped through the scenes on rails)–in this respect it’s reminiscent of “Pelham,” too–and by inserting moments of dark, pointed humor, many of them involving ethnic animosities and employing colorful character actors in the minor roles. And while much of the top-line cast isn’t at its best–Plummer and Ejiofor, both ordinarily striking, are strangely bland; Foster’s ultra-sophisticate routine comes across as arch, particularly since the subplot focusing on her goes nowhere; and even Willem Dafoe, usually so edgy, is rather dull as a police communications officer–Washington makes up for them with a savvy turn that conceals a lack of characterization with tons of charisma. (The verve he exhibits in those interview inserts is particularly winning.) And he’s nicely complemented by Owen, who shows real spark even though he has to play many of his scenes with his face obscured by his mask.
As noted above, “Inside Man” is beautifully crafted from a visual perspective, and it boasts a score by Terence Blanchard which may go overboard occasionally (at one point featuring receding trumpet fanfares that seem modeled after Jerry Goldsmith’s famous “Patton” theme), but nonetheless adds to the excitement. Whatever the faults of content, the packaging is certainly first-class.
In fact, the curious thing about “Inside Man” is that as formulaic as it is, and touching upon Lee’s usual themes of racial hostility with just glancing blows, it’s much more satisfying than the director’s more personal films, which tend to pontificate so insistently that they take on the character of screaming screeds. By making its “statements” only occasionally, and with humor more than in anger, the picture actually scores its points more effectively; they work far better as grace notes than as the full score they make up in his more didactic films. (The same was true of his previous studio effort, “The 25th Hour,” which was similarly conventional but satisfying.) Apart from that, it’s simply hard to resist the sheer vitality of Lee’s direction, Washington’s performance, and the behind-the-camera craftsmanship on display here. There might not be much cinematic meat in Gerwitz’s script, but what little there is Lee serves up with panache; and he even makes the bones seem palatable.