Inside Man

UK release date: 24 March 2006

cast list
Denzel Washington
Clive Owen
Jodie Foster
Willem Dafoe
Chiwetel Ejiofer
Christopher Plummer

directed by
Spike Lee

Whatever happened to old-school crime thrillers that relied on clever protagonists 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 sink its teeth into and puzzle out as it unfolds. That’s pleasurable enough but there’s more to enjoy: the interaction of a smart criminal matching wits with a smart cop, an unexpected bad guy, a little humour, a little swagger, some twists, and a very satisfying ending.

Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has planned the perfect bank robbery, or so he tells us. Why? Because he can. Or is there more to it? Russell and his three cohorts enter a major Manhattan bank and take hostages, lots and lots of hostages. They dress the hostages in outfits just like the robbers’ own, they make mysterious preparations, they wait. This is a game of chess and it’s the cops’ move.

Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) gets the call. Things in Frazier’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’s the little matter of some missing money. He says that a criminal is trying to frame him and he doesn’t seem too worried. Still, it’s holding him back at a time he should be moving up in the ranks. His hot girlfriend wants to get married but he can’t afford a ring or a place for them to live without sharing with her no-account brother. Things are good but just a little off, with the potential to go downhill. This case is an important one for him.

The cops set up shop surrounding the bank and negotiations begin. It becomes obvious that these are no ordinary bank robbers or hostages takers. They are wicked smart for one thing but maybe not so wicked in the original sense of the word. Or are they?

The usual hostage situation tactics of promises and delays are used until Frazier notices that the robbers may be the ones doing the delaying. Frazier begins to wonder if they even want their demands met. If not, what do they really want?

Then there’s the bank’s ridiculously wealthy founder and owner (Christopher Plummer), who seems far more concerned than one would expect. He hires Madeliene White (Jodie Foster), whose profession seems to be getting rid of messy problems for the very rich. Now Frazier has to deal with her as well as the robbers and he has a new mystery to solve: just what is in that bank that requires her attention?

This film is not Spike Lee at his most profound or impactful; Inside Man is no 25th Hour in that regard. But it is immensely enjoyable for those who like mind games that provide entertainment and intellectual challenge.

It’s not without some flaws. For instance, we know early on – when a would-be robber enters the bank in a hat, sunglasses, and painter outfit that would arouse suspicion in any bank – that we will have to make a conscious choice to suspend disbelief at times.

The main problem is that certain actions lack enough explanation and motivation. For example, why would a smart man keep incriminating evidence that he could have disposed of years ago? And although Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell is as smooth and clever a criminal mastermind as you could desire, we don’t get enough 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 lives beyond the film even if we are not privy to them. It’s like looking at a photo album of a very specific occasion. You know that things happened before and after the scenes you see but you may never learn what. And you don’t necessarily 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 not so much a twist as a revelation of things that have been going on in front of our faces that we may not have picked up on or understood. We are shown things from the first scene on that don’t make sense until the end. By then, we realise that while we may not have figured it all out, we’ve had a great time trying.

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