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Lee's mainstream foray surprisingly good

By Lady Liberty
web posted March 27, 2006

Inside Man

** 1/2 out of ****

Inside ManThe trailers for this movie opened with actor Clive Owen chatting directly with the camera and claiming he'd planned the perfect bank robbery. There are only two ways a movie can go after a statement like that. Either it will prove entertainingly clever, or it will fall flat either by telescoping plot twists or being utterly predictable. It was a true movie thrill to find that Inside Man is a terrific example of the former.

Remember the last time you visited your bank? It was likely just another in the list of errands you had that day. Other people, each conducting their own business and running their own errands were almost certainly there with you, though you probably didn't know each other and you exchanged nods and smiles at best. Then imagine that ordinary scene ripped apart by gun-wielding mask-wearing bank robbers, and how you might feel shivering on the floor next to those strangers with whom you suddenly have a crisis in common.

Dalton Russell (Clive Owens) and his partners have planned just such a scene, and they execute it perfectly. In a matter of minutes, the four robbers have herded bank employees and customers alike into manageable bunches and are well on their way through an apparent checklist of "things to do to rob a bank." But it also doesn't take long for a cop to notice something funny is going on at the Manhattan bank and to call for help.

With so many innocent civilians inside the building, one of those called in is hostage negotiator Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). Frazier isn't anybody's first choice — he's under investigation for the theft of some money seized as evidence — but his commanding officer has no one else who can go. So along with his partner, Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Frazier heads to the scene.

When Frazier arrives, the police have the situation well in hand with blockades to keep civilians away and a mobile command center on site run by Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe). Frazier takes command on his arrival, but his efforts aren't helped by the begrudging cooperation of Darius nor by the exorbitant demands received from the robbers. His world is about to be complicated still further when the mysterious Madeline White (Jodie Foster) arrives on scene.

White, who shows up in the company of no less a personage than New York's mayor himself, has been hired by the bank's owner, the wealthy Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to minimize the PR damage that could occur as a result of the robbery. But Frazier begins to suspect that there are agendas far beyond the mere success of a robbery or the public concern of the bank's owner. As a result, he's utterly bound up in the chaos of Dalton's perfect crime as it whipsaws its course defined in part by the machinations of others.

Denzel Washington is always good, and he's no exception here. What's nice is that he's allowed to be a little less serious than he sometimes is, and he carries off Detective Frazier's sass and biting humor with real aplomb. Clive Owen fleshes out his character with shades of grey that mitigate the black and white of good and bad behavior in ways that add a good deal to the plot. Jodie Foster, who is so often the heroine of a film, is a morally ambiguous character here. Though the Oscar winner's skills can't be doubted, it was still a bit of a surprise to see just how biting and arrogant a woman she can play. The large supporting cast is also just fine.

I'm not personally a big Spike Lee fan. I don't care for urban films, and I'm not impressed by Lee's politics, either. But he was surprisingly effective in his direction of this movie's more mainstream appeal, and I walked out of the theatre with a newfound respect for his abilities. The editing was superlative, particularly in its creative use of flash-forwards (as opposed to the more commonly seen flashbacks); there were a few truly creative camera angles and one inspired stop motion scene as well.

While Lee ably directed the picture, a good deal of credit must go to writer Russell Gewirtz who makes his major motion picture debut with his script for Inside Man. It's entertaining; it's smart; and while it's not truly believable, it's plausible enough that audiences can be gripped by the plot and dragged along its often surprising twists and turns.

As an aside, I don't typically notice the music in movies. If it's really good, you shouldn't. It should enhance scenes, not steal them. The music for the opening and closing credits of Inside Man, however, is particularly striking. It's an unusual choice to be sure, but it's somehow perfect for the job. I didn't notice a note between the beginning and the end of the movie though I don't doubt it was there; but I'm still humming the tune chosen to underlie the credits.

If you're headed out to the theatre to be educated or inspired, perhaps you'll consider seeing something else. But if you're looking for pure action entertainment, Inside Man is the perfect "now showing" venue.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Inside Man is rated R for "language and some violent images." I don't agree with that rating. There's no language in the film that the average 14 year-old doesn't hear in school or on his iPod on a regular basis, and the violence is far from graphic. (The single most graphic scene involves a video game — which, when you think about it, makes quite a point in the midst of an action movie.) I think most teens will like Inside Man, and as a bonus, so will most adults. I enjoyed it immensely myself.

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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