Inside Man

Spike Lee, who just turned 49 (can you believe he’s pushing fifty?) and is marking his twentieth year of feature filmmaking (I can’t believe that either), has lost none of his energy or his voice. You can say some of his films are duds — I certainly would — but you can’t say he’s repeated himself, rested on his laurels, or taken money for a project he didn’t believe in. Inside Man, Lee’s sixteenth narrative “joint” (not counting numerous concert films and documentaries), shows what this hot-blooded, sometimes hot-headed director can do when he decides to settle down and tell a story. A story that’s probably too convoluted and dependent on plot holes, but still a restlessly engaging tall tale, a crackling cops-and-robbers drama that outmuscles anything else out there. (Which isn’t hard.)

Carrying a little extra weight as hostage negotiator Keith Frazier, Denzel Washington ambles through the movie with the lightness of a serious actor happy to come to work on a smart piece of entertainment. Frazier’s nemesis is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the coldly shrewd mastermind of a bank robbery. Russell and his three associates have taken a lot of people hostage, but they don’t seem in any hurry to do what most bank robbers do, which is to, y’know, steal money. Their target lies inside a safety deposit box, which the bank’s owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) does not want to be opened. Case calls on a higher authority — a sort of executive facilitator named Madeline White (Jodie Foster) — to intervene between the cops and the robbers.

Inside Man doesn’t make a lot of logical sense when all is said and done. It seems like a lot of sound and fury signifying an anticlimax. Yet I doubt Spike Lee took this job just because he wanted a mainstream hit (as it happened, the movie’s opening-weekend take was a career best for both him and Washington). Lee loves New York, and loves its jostling disharmony, its short-tempered melting pot. Here, he gets to throw lowlifes in with the elite, leading to a sharp dialogue bout between patrician Madeline and unshaven Russell, or amusingly unlikely sparring between working-man Frazier and gray eminence Case. I think Lee made the movie just to shoot the dialogue (by Russell Gewirtz), and maybe secondarily to run a heist flick through the blender of his style.

What I’ll remember from Inside Man are the odd exchanges, like the one between Frazier and a white cop who consciously has to check his reflexively racist speech; Frazier chooses to let it slide, to let the cop be what he is, as long as the conversation leads to some insight. Or the way Russell sits down with a little black kid over pizza and registers surprise at the violent Grand Theft Auto-like game on the boy’s PSP. (I enjoy GTA myself, but Lee has a point to make about gangsta culture playing itself out in games, and he makes it well and hilariously.) Or the way Jodie Foster — for once not playing a role model — enjoys being smug and powerful; I’ve always known she had a terrific villain in her, and this role is about halfway there. The movie is full of entertaining digressions, like the way hard-bitten SWAT cop Willem Dafoe and another cop get in each other’s face over a cryptic trick question Russell asks Frazier. Or the difference between delivering pizza and sandwiches to the hostages, and what it means when Russell ends a phone call by snapping “Next time send sandwiches.” Most of the movie is, in fact, an entertaining digression.

I can’t say Inside Man is up there with Dog Day Afternoon (one of several predecessors it references), but it has the same interest in the people in the situation, rather than just in the situation. Critics like Roger Ebert have poked holes in the script’s logic, as if every movie needed to be a hermetic vault safe from nitpickers. Logic isn’t Spike Lee’s strong point. He nails the irritable yet alive soul of New York — particularly, now, New York post-9/11 — better than anyone else. Sometimes he doesn’t have the right story or characters to animate his ongoing ode to the city. Sometimes he does. And sometimes he just wants to enjoy himself, as he clearly does here. Inside Man is probably the most basically fun movie Lee has ever made.

Explore posts in the same categories: one of the year's best, thriller

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