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Inside Man   B-

Universal Pictures / Imagine Entertainment

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Spike Lee
Writer: Russell Gewirtz
Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Review by Rob Vaux

Inside Man is a successful thriller that rarely succeeds as a thriller. From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, it benefits from a strong cast and a slick caper, but struggles in the key areas of pacing and delivery. And yet it works, mostly because director Spike Lee sprinkles the expected elements with a bracing dose of his slice-of-the-Big-Apple zeitgeist. It sags in the middle, stumbles at the end, and runs a good 20 minutes after its grace period has run out, but there's real originality in its text, courtesy of a helmsman who is anything but run-of-the-mill.

Of course, nothing works without a strong backbone, which in this case means a clever plan to rob a high-end Manhattan bank. Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has such a plan, cobbled from several other heist thrillers, but assembled in a properly enticing way. The bulk of Inside Man is an extended battle of wits between Russell -- holed up in his target with several cohorts and forty-odd hostages -- and Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) heading the contingent of cops and SWAT team snipers outside. Naturally, there's more going on than a simple standoff. When the police arrive, Russell seems intent on stalling for time, cunningly setting them after their own tails while his associates... well, that would be telling. But Frazier soon picks up the scent of his adversary's hidden agenda -- prompted by the unexpected arrival of an ice-queen power broker (Jodie Foster) issuing edicts of the "shut up and do as I say" variety -- and isn't about to let either one of them outsmart him.

The situation develops slowly, focusing on character rather than action. Lee and screenwriter Russell Gerwitz coat it with a pointed sense of humor, stressing the foibles of the various figures on-screen and allowing Owen to apply an impressively deadpan wit. At the same time, the standoff remains plausible, and the people all have grounded motivations, which facilitates the second half of Lee's one-two punch. The various tensions in play -- between cops and robbers, robbers and hostages, officers and underlings, social elites and working-class stiffs -- allow for some deft riffing on the uneasy social fabric of New York City. The cast contains a heavy mix of ethnicities, and the expected racial issues (police bigotry, a harassed Sikh hostage, a video game glorifying the gangsta-thug lifestyle) are present in force. But Lee includes more esoteric moments as well, such as the isolating creep of consumer technology (the bank customers are too absorbed in their iPods and cell phones to notice Russell enter) or the lingering specter of 9/11 (evinced here by a beautifully shot sequence across the river from Ground Zero, and a prominent poster proclaiming "We Will Never Forget"). He knows better than to simplify such elements, and the lack of pat resolution gives them a sense of crisp reality. They're mixed with important clues about the robbery itself, which, along with the strong dynamic between Owen and Washington (and good supporting turns from the rest of the cast), lets Inside Man keep track of its cops-and-robbers story -- even as it delves into the more effusive social concepts on the periphery of the drama.

Indeed, so refreshing are the trappings that it's easy to forgive the film when its more traditional sections start to bog down. Pacing has always been Lee's weak point, and Inside Man often labors to keep things moving. While the character interplay is sharp and funny, it covers up for the fact that very little happens -- and when it does, it's usually either misdirection or a false alarm. Gerwitz's script encompasses a variety of subplots, which function harmoniously for the first two-thirds, but grow cumbersome towards the conclusion. The climactic Big Reveal has a decent kick, but is followed by 15 minutes of additional resolution, where every little thread and divergence is addressed and sewn up. As the film inches past its second hour, exasperation begins to set in, and the satisfaction of the payoff is lost beneath unseemly self-indulgence. A remixed edit and some disciplined cuts earlier on would have saved Inside Man a world of grief.

That's part and parcel for this director, however, and make no mistake: this is a Spike Lee joint. Though swathed in mainstream production values and packaged as filler for the multiplex, it remains a fierce product of his auteurial vision. Its chief joys come from watching him experiment with the format -- seeing how much of his voice he can inject into the proceedings while still obeying the dictates of crowd-pleasing fun. There's a price to that game, and it costs Inside Man a lot. But the heist is keen, the players are smooth, and the subtext is delivered with expert skill. If it's not a great thriller, then at least it's a different thriller... and "different" carries pleasures all its own.

Review published 03.23.2006.

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