Directed by Spike Lee
"My name is Dalton Russell." These are the first words Clive Owen utters while starring directly into the camera in Spike Lee’s latest project, "Inside Man." He continues, "Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully." From this point on, Russell proceeds to manipulate the movie’s other characters, forcing them to do his bidding. Ultimately, Russell plans to pull of the "perfect bank robbery," hostages and police standoffs included.
Of course, the heist isn’t going to happen if Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the detective-cum-hostage negotiator on the case, has anything to say about it. Frazier is dealing with a psychotically-calm bank robber, but his personal life is a mess. He is embroiled in a fraud scandal at work and has a girlfriend who is pushing for marriage. So we have the cop-with-something-to-prove and the mysterious British villain (actually, Clive Owen might be playing American—his accent is a bit hard to pin down); toss in a shady power broker (Jodie Foster), and you’ve got yourself a perfect Friday night crime thriller.
While "Inside Man" treads familiar ground, it does so with a deft, fun touch that makes it feel fresher than the average cops-and-robbers soirée. Perhaps its trickiest feat is balancing two distinct storylines: a cop movie (the police are the good guys and the drama is behind the barricades) and a heist movie (the robbers are the good guys and the fun is in seeing them pull off their convoluted plot). It is hard to cheer for both sides at once, but the movie makes it possible (no telling who wins in the end, though) by directing all our antipathy towards another, separate villain (who happens to have Nazi ties).
The surprising connections between characters strain believability at times, but remember, we’re dealing with a fundamentally implausible genre—the fun is in each side trying to outmaneuver the other, and in the twists and turns of the plot, not in whether the plot is realistic. At least the technology used by each side actually exists (there’s even a crack about how one fancy gadget can probably be found on Amazon).
Perhaps the greatest downfall of the film is its inability to focus on one scene sequence at a time. Tense moments are too often interrupted by unrelated scenes, such as bickering inside the police van over the correct answer to a trivia question posed by Russell. While Russell does ask the questions with the provision that if the police get them wrong he’s going to kill hostages, the discussion is less hostage-negotiator and more Trivial Pursuit game gone bad.
In part because of these digressions, "Inside Man" has a far more leisured pace than most thrillers. However, the storyline is interesting enough that Lee doesn’t need to blow something up every couple minutes to hold our attention. In fact, the violence is fairly minimal; most of the drama is created by people’s strained and intense conversations.
Bottom Line: "Inside Man" proves that if a cops-and-robbers film has a strong screenplay and award-winning actors, it doesn’t need to be frenetic to keep us at the edge of our seats. Bravo, Spike.
—Staff writer Elisabeth J. Bloomberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.