Available this week on video and DVD, Inside Man is a Spike Lee movie with a difference. The usual ingredients are all in place: the New York City setting with its wise-guy, smart mouth, ethnic-sniping populace; the in-your-face photography which matches that sensibility; the somewhat self-serving editing; and Denzel Washington dominating the screen. But this is a commercially aimed, formula driven thriller, a heist flick with lots of twists.
One such twist will recall Dog Day Afternoon, an apparently similar film which this one openly alludes to. We are led to sympathize with the head of the robber gang, even as things seem to go awry for him. Indeed, the soft-spoken master thief, Dalton Russell (played with an unflappable intensity by Clive Owen) seems to be a thug, but various hints indicate otherwise. One of my favorite moments is a completely extraneous bit in which Russell chides a young hostage for playing a violent video game. His interchanges with his chief opponent, detective Keith Frazier (Washington) demonstrate his intelligence, his ability to make the police chase their own tails. In fact, as Frazier gradually comes to realize, Russell's motives for taking over the Wall Street bank and several dozen hostages are far different from what they seem. In this setting, where everyone is trying to get one up on the next person and nobody's motives are unmixed, Russell has a curious kind of admirability.
As usual, director/producer Lee takes some liberties with the script and characters that a more tightly-reined moviemaker would not. For instance, the motives of two secondary characters, played by marquee names Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer, have some major holes, and the film comes up well shy of satisfying our curiosity or explaining them. These two are also involved in the payoff, which is pretty lame, given the overall wit of screenwriter Russell Gewirtz's script. And while film editor Barry Alexander Brown's work dazzles, there needs to be, well, less film. The movie could use some judicious cutting to achieve the kind of tautness we've come to expect of the genre.
On the other hand, some of Lee's choices challenge and please us. A series of after-the-fact interviews done with the hostages are shot in black and white and intercut with the robbery scenes, creating "flash forwards"¯ that first confuse, then beguile and amuse, as well as laying down some hints for Frazier and us to mull over. (Washington is excellent in these, doing both parts of the good cop/bad cop routine almost by himself.) There's considerable wry humor, too, some of it coming in the tensest moments. Finally, the very last scene, in which the weary detective at last comes home, is just delicious.
Inside Man is appropriately rated "R"¯ for language and some moments of violence, though these latter need to be taken at less than face value. Given its star power"”Willem Dafoe has an important supporting role"”and its plot, the movie got good reviews and word of mouth, though it was not a commercial hit.