Inside Man (2006)

Directed by Spike Lee; Written by Russell Gerwitz

With his trademark flair and irreverence, Spike Lee sticks it to unscrupulous bankers in The Inside Man, a story of a bank robbery-turned hostage situation and the actors involved, from robbers to detectives to power brokers to business moguls. 

Clive Owen plays the robber, Dalton Russell. He tells us so in the opening scene where he delivers a fourth wall shattering monologue putting the pieces of the entire film forward and framing it as one large performance. With the opener, Lee puts the entire thing on tracks, control established, impossible to deviate from. 

Up against him is Denzel Washington, NYPD negotiator who’s dispatched to the Wall Street Bank where Dalton’s waltzed in and has taken everybody hostage. He’s smooth, fast-talking, dresses pretty dapper; Washington’s natural charisma shines through. 

The bank belongs to Arthur Chase, played by Christopher Plummer. He’s über-wealthy as you can imagine, his entire existence carved out of expensive wood. Yet, he looks shaken when they tell them that particular branch is being robbed. What’s he hiding in there? 

To make sure his secrets are safe, he contacts Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), some hotshot power broker who’s got NYC’s heavy hitters on speed dial. She feels confident she can keep whatever it is under wraps (power will make you think that) and so they all descend on the bank. The stage is set, the players assembled, and so they begin posturing, making plays, and bluffing, all in order to outwit the others. 

It’s a collision of egos and game-recognize-game encounters by capable players, but the chess game never materializes. The score by Terence Blanchard, Lee’s longtime collaborator, is beautiful, but suave instead of tense, and it’s symptomatic of a film that never comes close to the stress levels you’d expect from a standoff of this nature. His score is pensive, leaning closer to film noir jazz with soaring brass instruments setting the tone for a film more concerned with solving the true purpose of this heist rather than the outcome. 

It means we’re trying to solve it alongside the action, Lee revealing the puzzle piece by piece, jumping forward in time as detectives interview suspects, and then back to the action at hand. It’s all well-constructed and it makes for a smooth film and it’s easy to enjoy the intricate design of Gerwitz’s story, which almost stands in contrast to Lee’s trademark ebullient style. The flashes of cinematic virtuosity, and his eye for elevated sequences always thrills, however, and are only a boon to Inside Man

The biggest problem facing Lee’s film is that the stakes are never really there. Owen’s robber is defined by his seeming omnipotence, and the cop vs. robber showdown feels elusive, with Washington’s struggle with police department politics and the mayor’s office much more evident. 

Foster’s Madeleine White, the velvet-wrapped iron fist moving in the background, is also a two-note character, barely adjusting from smug to condescending, but at the least there’s more to her than Plummer’s billionaire banker with a dark past, who’s really just there to have the rug pulled out from underneath him as the mark in a slightly more sophisticated version of a Laurel & Hardy’s slapstick act. 

Praise Gerwitz and Lee for their prescience, however, with Inside Man coming two years before the 2008 financial crash and three years before Occupy Wall Street made manifest the US’s collective anger at those who put profit above all else. Inside Man is still a Spike Lee joint, even if it’s a lesser one, an caper film that ticks along on Lee’s cinematic prowess and energy even if the only character who sticks in the mind is Washington’s man in the middle. 

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