Inside Man opens with Clive Owen's aspiring bank robber Dalton Russell talking directly to the audience and urging them to pay attention because he won't repeat himself. He then lays out the who (that would be him), what (a daring robbery), where (downtown Manhattan), and when (real soon) of a crime he's about to commit. But how's he going to pull it off? Well, like the Bard said, 'there in lies the rub.' Or does it. Dalton implies that there's uncertainty or difficulty involved in this crime yet we quickly discover, that he has every angle covered and may be in the process of pulling off that elusive perfect crime.
Dalton and his cohorts, all disguised as painters, enter the bank and quickly disable the cameras, secure the building and terrorize the customers into submission. They also make the customers strip and put on coveralls and masks so everyone will look like the robbers. A beat cop notices something amiss and calls the station. That's when Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) gets tapped to go to the 'show.' Frazier's been in the doghouse over some missing funds but this hostage situation'if he handles it right'could make him top dog at the station. So he and his partner Detective Mitchell (the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor from Dirty Pretty Things ) head down to the bank to negotiate with the robbers and hopefully bring everything to a non-violent conclusion.
But something's not right. Frazier concludes that Dalton is up to more than just a bank robbery. Plus, Frazier believes Dalton's simply not a killer and that he may not even be interested in stealing the money. So why then has he gone through all these elaborate plans to get inside the bank? The answer may lie with the founder of the bank Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer who seems too oily too early on in the film). Case has a safety deposit box at that branch of his bank, and he's just hired the steely Madeleine White (Jodie Foster having a grand time) to secretly negotiate with the robbers to secure the contents of that box. Now Frazier's curiosity is really peaked. What appeared to be a standard bank robbery is slowly developing into a far more complex situation.
This kind of formula Hollywood fare is not usually the stuff that peaks Spike Lee's interest. His best works' She's Gotta Have It , Do the Right Thing , Malcolm X 'have all been fueled by more potent material and burned with more personal passions. Inside Man feels more like hired gun work, something more inline with Lee's Clockers . Inside Man , like Clockers and The 25th Hour , is a film that features white characters more prominently than Lee's films usually do and are more plot driven than idea driven. Yet even though Inside Man lacks the fire of Lee's earlier works, it still bears his imprint. New York is once again a simmering melting pot but now the mix of races has grown even more diverse and with increased confusion over ethnic identities. When a bug, planted in the pizzas provided to the robbers, records a conversation in a foreign language, the cops deduce it's Russian. But when they bring in a Russian translator, he says it's not Russian and he doesn't know what the heck language it is. So Frazier broadcasts the audio over the loudspeaker and simply asks the crowd what language it is. After all, it's New York and somebody's bound to know what language it is. And somebody does. It's Albanian. Later, a hostage is released and when the cops grab him they call him an Arab and seem to think he's one of the robbers and maybe even a terrorist. The man angrily insists he's a Sikh and can't understand why people can't differentiate Arabs from Sikhs, and why he's harassed at every airport.
Lee, a born and bred New Yorker, also includes a reference to 9/11, something he also felt compelled to do in The 25th Hour . In Inside Man , the subtle reference occurs in a scene where Frazier stands in front of a poster that says 9/11 'never forget.' Lee also endows Inside Man with shots that have become his trademark, such as a dolly shot in which the actor and camera seem to ride together and 360-degree pans that take in the actor and his environment. So although Inside Man may not be prime Lee material, it is distinctly recognizable as his work.
Without hot button issues or relationships to create real sparks, Lee turns Inside Man into an entertaining thriller set in his favorite city. But Lee can't rise above the limitations of first-time feature writer Russell Gewirtz' script. The premise is clever, but we quickly realize that Dalton is up to something else besides robbing a bank and since, like Frazier, we deduce that he's not a violent man, suspense rapidly dwindles. Plus Lee jumps cuts from the robbery in progress to interviews with the hostages after the siege is over, so we know early on that many and probably all of the people got out without injury. So we never really sense true danger or feel that the robbers are unpredictably violent. This is not an intricate mind teaser like David Mamet's Heist . It's interesting but not that hard to unravel, and when the twists are revealed, they tend to point out some major plot holes.
Lee does generate interest with his actors. Owen, who has to spend most of the film hidden behind a mask, has a great voice and supreme cool that makes his Dalton fun to watch. Washington makes Frazier an interesting cop. He can toy and joke with the hostages, even making one old lady fear that she's a suspect. He can also play dumb one moment and hold his own the next with power brokers like Foster's White. As White, Foster enjoys a chance to be nasty as a woman whose 'bite is worse than her bark.' Willem Dafoe, as a police captain and Plummer, however, are pretty much wasted in their minimal scenes.
Inside Man (rated R for language) is a smoothly crafted but not very personal work from the talented Spike Lee. -----