Whatever happened to old-school crime thrillers that relied on cleverprotagonists and intricate plotting instead of over-the-top action and gore?They are still around. Spike Lee is making them.
Lee’s Inside Man is a true mystery, the kind an audience loves to sinkits teeth into and puzzle out as it unfolds. That’s pleasurable enough butthere’s more to enjoy: the interaction of a smart criminal matching wits with asmart cop, an unexpected bad guy, a little humour, a little swagger, sometwists, and a very satisfying ending.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has planned the perfect bank robbery, or so hetells us. Why? Because he can. Or is there more to it? Russell and his threecohorts enter a major Manhattan bank and take hostages, lots and lots ofhostages. They dress the hostages in outfits just like the robbers’ own, theymake mysterious preparations, they wait. This is a game of chess and it’s thecops’ move.
Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) gets the call. Things inFrazier’s life seem to be going just a shade less well than they should.Frazier has the smarts and good instincts to be a great detective but there’sthe little matter of some missing money. He says that a criminal is trying toframe him and he doesn’t seem too worried. Still, it’s holding him back at atime he should be moving up in the ranks. His hot girlfriend wants to getmarried but he can’t afford a ring or a place for them to live without sharingwith her no-account brother. Things are good but just a little off, with thepotential to go downhill. This case is an important one for him.
The cops set up shop surrounding the bank and negotiations begin. It becomesobvious that these are no ordinary bank robbers or hostages takers. They arewicked smart for one thing but maybe not so wicked in the original sense of theword. Or are they?
The usual hostage situation tactics of promises and delays are used untilFrazier notices that the robbers may be the ones doing the delaying. Frazierbegins to wonder if they even want their demands met. If not, what do theyreally want?
Then there’s the bank’s ridiculously wealthy founder and owner (ChristopherPlummer), who seems far more concerned than one would expect. He hiresMadeliene White (Jodie Foster), whose profession seems to be getting rid ofmessy problems for the very rich. Now Frazier has to deal with her as wellas the robbers and he has a new mystery to solve: just what is in that bankthat requires her attention?
This film is not Spike Lee at his most profound or impactful; InsideMan is no 25th Hour in that regard. But it is immensely enjoyablefor those who like mind games that provide entertainment and intellectualchallenge.
It’s not without some flaws. For instance, we know early on – when awould-be robber enters the bank in a hat, sunglasses, and painter outfit thatwould arouse suspicion in any bank – that we will have to make a consciouschoice to suspend disbelief at times.
The main problem is that certain actions lack enough explanation andmotivation. For example, why would a smart man keep incriminating evidence thathe could have disposed of years ago? And although Clive Owen’s Dalton Russellis as smooth and clever a criminal mastermind as you could desire, we don’t getenough of his background to understand how he got to this point and why.Foster’s Madeliene White remains another cipher.
Still, I appreciate the fact that these characters do seem to have livesbeyond the film even if we are not privy to them. It’s like looking at a photoalbum of a very specific occasion. You know that things happened before andafter the scenes you see but you may never learn what. And you don’tnecessarily need to see everything to enjoy what you do see.
It’s tempting to say that there is a twist to the ending but really it is notso much a twist as a revelation of things that have been going on in front ofour faces that we may not have picked up on or understood. We are shown thingsfrom the first scene on that don’t make sense until the end. By then, werealise that while we may not have figured it all out, we’ve had a great timetrying.