The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, November 04, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Inside Man

Originally published 3/28/06
Full review behind the jump

Inside Man

: Spike Lee
: Russell Gewirtz
: Brian Grazer
: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Cristopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Here we have a heist movie wherein a criminal mastermind plans an escapade based around a piece of knowledge that all the evidence suggests it is impossible for him to have. We also have a movie which might possibly be better if one of its major roles were completely eliminated.

And yet, I would like to put in a request for more movies like
Inside Man, not because of these and other flaws which are real and we will dutifully examine, but because it is mounted with driving energy and atmosphere, and because it pairs an unpredictable filmmaker with classic genre material and he doesn’t respond as if he is slumming it.

The mastermind in question is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), who in the tradition of great stage illusionists tells us up front what unlikely thing he intends to do and continues to point out that he is doing it even as it unfolds before our eyes. So when the police and other interested parties waiting outside the imperious Manhattan bank he is robbing don’t take him at his word that he intends to walk right out the front door rich and free, they really have no one to blame but themselves.

And the filmmaker in question is Spike Lee, who has defiantly followed his own muse for over a generation now through movies both heralded and reviled, but one thing that is beyond dispute is that he knows New York – the streets, the people and the vibe. He doesn’t gaze in rapture on the skyscrapers, he looks from ground level, and it enriches every frame of this, the first unapologetically commercial effort of his career. I hope it will not be the last.

Russell’s scheme is ingenious in that it capitalizes on the clichés of bank robberies – the arrival of police is not an urgent deadline but simply part of a more elegant equation. He and his masked collaborators take hostages, confiscate cell phones, wave guns around, and lock down the bank. A patrolman passing by spots smoke leaking out the front door, sees Russell making threats and calls it in.

And from there the movie sits back to appreciate the machinery set in motion – how a weathered metropolis like New York responds with practiced smoothness. Emergency vehicles converge, reporters take their stations, the street is cordoned off and barricades are erected as routinely as if this were a scheduled parade; and, naturally enough, a melting pot crowd materializes behind them to gawk. The crowd even comes in handy when Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) gets an electronic bug snuck into the bank but can’t figure out what language he’s hearing – he just turns on the outside speakers and asks for volunteer translators, and what follows is priceless.

Frazier is an engrossing balance of ambition and cynicism. He has risen as far as his brains and street smarts will take him – and Lee’s regular composer Terrence Blanchard ties his jazzy tones in with the detective’s readiness to adjust and improvise within the situation, the movie’s musical backdrop is a triumph all its own. To achieve the next step, the rank of 1st detective (and all the life improvements he’s stalled on its behalf), Frazier accepts without moral shock that he now must play at politics, or to put it less delicately – horse trading and blackmail.

So even as he commands the police response to this confusing hostage situation (Why does the thief seem so calm while besieged? Why are his demands so pedestrian and unlikely? Why does he dress both his cohorts and prisoners in identical coveralls and masks?), he treats the arrival of Madeline White (Jodie Foster) with a kind of bemused curiosity. She is introduced by the Mayor (Peter Kybart) as someone with no official standing, but who should be allowed to “assist” to the extent that she does what she wants without having to explain why. She’s been retained by owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer), who is concerned about something these robbers might or might not find, but which he will not divulge to her.

He is so secretive about this thing that it’s a wonder anyone could know what it is – and yet Russell does, and this is never explained. But never mind. Frazier recognizes these games of the elite, and accepts their intrusion as an invitation to join in, especially since they have the potential of explaining this most frustrating and unusual robbery.

And that’s a bit of my issue with Foster’s character right there. As effortlessly as she occupies this beguilingly corrupt creature, and as much as I welcome any appearance by her in a film, the result of her presence is that we’re often left watching Frazier figure out things that, thanks to her, we already know. This especially makes the movie’s final 15 minutes, when he’s doing what should be his best detecting, feel superfluous – a vent of moral outrage directed at characters who have confessed their crimes to the audience already.

When the movie is procedural, and allows us to breathe in the details of Russell’s scheme (Owen’s impervious confidence is mesmerizing) and Frazier’s urgent sense that something larger is afoot, it’s good. When it takes those moments in between to delight in the behavior of its New Yorker characters, it’s even better – although it has a purpose that gradually dawns on us, we accept the narrative flash-forwards, where Frazier and his partner/apprentice Detective Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conduct post-robbery interviews with the hostages, as they are because they are so delightfully performed. Inside Man is a movie that values these qualities – brains, wit and a crackling sense of place. It is imperfect but it is never perfunctory. That is why we need more of them.


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