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Spike Lee shows a sure hand with genre thrills in 2006's Inside Man, a diverting caper film that also serves as a solid star vehicle for Denzel Washington. In their fourth feature outing together, Lee and Washington head a polished production that puts smarts ahead of violence. Hostage siege bank robbery films have suffered ever since Bill Murray's spoof Quick Change back in 1990; screenwriter Russell Gewirtz concocts a getaway scheme where none would seems to be possible.
The basic setup is quite a bit like the classic Dog Day Afternoon, with perhaps some inspiration derived from Warren Beatty's "$" (Dollars). A number of armed bandits seize a bank in lower Manhattan and are soon surrounded by a small army of New York's finest. Without a hope for a conventional escape, heist mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen of Children of Men) seems totally unperturbed and even encourages the cops to stall for time. Outside the bank, Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) and his assistant Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) become frustrated by Russell's unwillingness to negotiate. The bandits have made their twenty hostages dress in identical blue jumpsuits, to make it difficult for a SWAT team to distinguish crooks from victims.
Detective Frazier's problem is complicated by interference from above. The mayor personally injects political fixer Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) into the middle of the situation, so she can attempt a private deal with Dalton Russell. White wants to secure the contents of an unlisted safety deposit box belonging to the bank's owner, the fabulously wealthy Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). Whatever's in that box, the elderly Case doesn't want it made public.
Inside Man is a pleasure to watch, a class-A thriller entertainment. The screenplay abounds with funny lines for Denzel Washington and Clive Owen. Also given solid material to work with is Willem Dafoe, who plays a squad Captain. The practical problems of the bank siege highlight New York's racial diversity. A scramble to find a translator brings in an alluring Albanian woman, who won't help unless the cops nullify her shopping bag full of parking tickets. As the hostages are released, Frazier must deal with a Jewish jeweler, a nervy woman from the Bronx and a Sikh bank teller furious that, in the post- 9/11 climate of fear he's constantly profiled as a suspicious Arab. "Yeah, but I bet you have no trouble getting a cab", remarks Frazier.
The pressure on Frazier comes from both ends at once. The robbers are threatening to kill a hostage, which would turn Frazier's plum opportunity into a career debacle. The bandits must have a brilliant, unpredictable escape plan -- they've demanding a jet plane but everyone knows that nobody escapes that way. Meanwhile, the bank president Arthur Case and his slick operator Madeleine White are a complete mystery to Frazier. Who ever heard of a separate, privileged negotiation being allowed when innocent lives are at stake?
Inside Man is definitely a caper with some twists; it would be unfair to divulge more plot details. Screenwriter Gewirtz gives us fair warning in a prologue opening in which Dalton Russell addresses the camera directly, telling us to listen carefully to his words. If the film has a weakness, it's in Jodie Foster's Madeleine White character. This glamorous woman spends her days attending to delicate arrangements for the very wealthy; she makes a joke about quietly helping a relative of Bin Laden buy a swank apartment. White's influence is such that the mayor (Peter Kybart) seems to fear her. Unfortunately, Foster plays White in such an oily, insulting manner that any average person would go out of their way to give her trouble. This 5th Avenue fixer reminds us of Robert Vaughn's obnoxious politico way back in the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt. I'm not saying that a real-life fixer wouldn't be as detestable, but this woman can't open her mouth without making a serious enemy.
Inside Man's clever finish leaves the vault door open for a possible sequel -- unconfirmed reports state that one is on the way. If anything's unsatisfying about the show, it's that we don't get the satisfaction of seeing Jodie Foster's character gunned down, or at least hit with a custard pie.
Spike Lee makes sure that Denzel Washington's character gives the bad guys the finger (quite literally), even if he doesn't nail either of them. Also of note is that with the exception of Frazier's voluptuous girlfriend Sylvia (Cassandra Freeman), the film's leading female characters are all troublemakers of one kind or another. When a busty hostage catches Detective Mitchell's staring at her chest, the scene arranges for her to be the offensive party.
Universal's Blu-ray of Inside Man is an excellent encoding of this smartly produced caper thriller. Spike Lee's cameraman uses a different style for the action episodes and the hostage interrogation scenes, choices that help keep the narrative straight even when events are related out of order. The soundtrack, an interesting mix of suspense music and jazz cues, uses an adapted Bollywood song over the main credits.
Spike Lee provides a personable commentary and contributes heavily to a well-structured making-of featurette. A Deleted Scenes extra shows a great deal more "hostage interview" material, that had it been kept, might have given away the film's clever surprises. Number 4 is a friendly conversation between director Lee and Denzel Washington as they go over their filmic experiences together, especially Washington's difficult acting turn in Lee's Malcolm X.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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