Artist: Movie ReviewTitle: Inside Man (Film)Rating: 4 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Edwardo jackson
Every once in a while, in Hollywood, you catch a glimmer, a faint glimpse at how good the world (re: entertainment world) could be. A few times a year, a perfect storm coalesces to bring smart talented people together to do smart, talented work. Inside Man (Universal Pictures) is in the eye of such a perfect storm.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) will tell you that he has planned the perfect crime. Orchestrating a heist of complex simplicity, Russell leads three others in taking over Manhattan Trust bank in the middle of the day, dressed – and dressing their fifty hostages – in similar hooded, scarflike-masked disguises. If not dirty then tarnished detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) get the call by default to handle this situation while bank founder and board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) employs high-end corporate fix it woman Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to ensure that the contents of one very sensitive safety deposit box are not found out. What unfolds is a three-way cat and mouse game between Russell, Frazier, and White (sounds like an all-time starting lineup for the Knicks) where the rules keep changing but the (mental) games keep playing.
There is delight in seeing such smartly written dialogue fly out of the mouths of this all-star cast. Crafted by tyro writer Russell Gewirtz, Inside Man features an offbeat, deadpan sense of humor wonderfully mixed with the drama. It’s an entrancing, diverse, detailed script, hypnotizing you with its confident intricacy, and making you wonder just where it’s leading you while not frustrating you on the journey. Plus the ending, while somewhat Hollywood, is satisfying, earned, and outstanding all the same.
With such a heavyweight script, you need heavyweight actors. Jodie Foster is coolly condescending in a small but succulent role as a shady “everything about you is off the record” power broker. Clive Owen, also preternaturally cool, is in complete command, just like his elegant, calm thief of a character. Uncontrollably charismatic, even when covered by a mask, hood, and pair of sunglasses, Owen, still fiddling with a dodgy American accent, humanizes Russell just enough so you’re truly pulling for him to pull the whole thing off. Sporting a far sturdier American-with-a-touch-of-Brooklyn accent is Chiwetel Ejiofor, truly a Wall Candidate with talent and magnetism to spare as Frazier’s dutiful yet entertaining partner. Words are becoming redundant when it comes to the distinguished Mr. Washington, the broad-shouldered, Fedora-wearing, light suit-sporting veteran detective Keith Frazier. At times likable, unlikable, sweet, nasty, romantic, arrogant, and sympathetic, Washington’s Frazier is a fully dimensional character that leaves you rooting for him to solve the case/stop the crime ALMOST as much as you want Russell to get away with it. When done well-done right-this is the heart of a true heist film: a tug of war for our divided loyalties between cop and crook.
Given the big budget studio treatment from the outset for a change, Spike Lee as director is another example of how Hollywood got it right this time. Teamed with the thinking man’s Jerry Bruckheimer of popular filmmaking, the super successful Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, every accoutrement of the star system is afforded to the indie-centric, social activist Lee. When Willem Dafoe is a casting afterthought as a police captain and a talent like Chiwetel Ejiofor is essentially a glorified sidekick, that’s when your eyes just sparkle with the possibilities of how much more Spike could’ve accomplished had he just sold out earlier in his career. But then you appreciate this view of the other side of the fence for being just what it is: a view.
And the view is just fine. With Inside Man, Spike Lee reminds you why he’s Spike Lee – and how he has been doing this for 20 years: he’s just artistically superior to his peers. Although still forcing in his trademark standing still traveling shot (what would a John Woo movie be without white doves, right?), Lee gets the rest of it perfectly, extracting soda pop-fizzy performances from every single actor involved. Blending post-incident interviews with the current narrative action, Lee keeps you as confused and off-balance as everyone involved, yet still finds a way to keep you breathlessly intrigued AND involved (if you can digest that sentence, then you are ready for “Inside Man”). Lavishly yet realistically shot by his She Hate Me cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Lee’s Inside Man, as in many of his other films, passionately uses New York as its fourth lead, playing nicely with our-and native New Yorkers’-fears after 9/11. You can only wonder if Spike could ever make such brilliant movies outside the Tri-State area; in a more socially relevant way, Spike is like the black Woody Allen. Make no mistake, this is still a Spike Lee joint: Lee still provides sly social commentary on some African-Americans’ self-image and value of material wealth
Wouldn’t you know it’d be a man who’s, somehow, made a living and a career living outside the Hollywood studio system who would come to breathe life into one of its time-honored domains. There couldn’t be a more unlikely auteur to produce a masterpiece of the heist flick genre than Spike Lee. To whatever storm of events that brought us peerless entertainment like Inside Man, here’s hoping Hollywood continues to get it right.
Edwardo Jackson (ReelReviewz@aol.com) is an author and LA-based screenwriter, visit his website at www.edwardojackson.com