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Inside Man

Universal // R // May 26, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 7, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

"Pay close attention to what I say, because I choose my words closely and I never repeat myself." -- Dalton Russell, Inside Man

Though Spike Lee has experimented outside of his moral and cultural comment films in spats (Summer of Sam), the director of Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour clearly finds a resonant and affective center when exploring humanity's barometer. Then, he decided to tip-toe away from his advocate canon for a more mainstream picture with Inside Man -- an intricate, conversation-heavy bank heist film with clear reflections on Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. Lee combines his knack for dialogue with a semi-traditional Hollywood crime caper framework, pumping his strikingly complete cinematic departure full of sharp-witted, stylish attitude and unpredictable oomph.

It starts with Dalton Russel (Clive Owen) eying us down with intense face-to-fact contact through the camera, slowly verbalizing every single detail of his master plan. He reveals the Who, Where, What, When, and Why of his plot in quick fashion, then tells us that the rub lies in the "How". Near-complete transparency for his account of the perfect bank heist is what he's after, since those details are only a cluster of clues that we should keep tucked away throughout the film. He wants us to know everything, mainly because details aren't always as they seem. What he reassures us of is this: Dalton's plan, marked with like-colored jumpers for his accomplices, collected cellphones, and knowledge of a special deposit box in a New York based bank, are all significant, while his willingness to act out all of the run-of-the-mill bank heist movements with his crew seems ... suspect.

He's an intriguing criminal and ringleader, but the real appeal to Inside Man lies in the kicked-up anthill of characters drawn in, and affected by, his heist. Enter Detective Frazier, played by Spike Lee veteran Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), a smarter-than-he-seems cop given his big break when he's assigned to the bank heist. With his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) alongside, they monitor the situation and brainstorm the thieves' motives. On the other end of the city, the bank's owner (Christopher Plummer) has another agenda. He hires a "solver of problems" named Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to try and collect something specific buried deep within the bank.

It's only natural that White and Frazier will butt heads, leading to a fair share of one-upping and snarky quips between a dominant, manipulative woman and a streetwise cop. Around every corner, there's something either to snicker or gasp at in Lee's film; Frazier and Mitchell's interrogation of the prisoners, White's shark-eat-shark voracity with her employer, and the sublimely perfect flow of Dalton's heist are all entrancing. Clive Owen stay low-key and commonplace for him, which allows for Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster to shine with a mix of natural charisma and slight character flavors as they circle each other like sharks.

Their attitude, and our enjoyment of the characters in an out-of-the-box fashion from the heist itself, causes Inside Man to sprint quite a few paces in front of the run-of-the-mill bank heist flick. At times, the heist itself almost seems like a bookshelf for character interactions instead of the primary draw to the film. Then, Dalton's crew surprises us with an added nugget of intrigue to the puzzle. In the process, character motivations become suspect and morph with each scene. Washington's Frazier arises as the hero, but Lee makes certain that nothing is clear-cut or predictable with their motivations. That's the way to nail down a polished modern whodunit -- not by just keeping character motives close to the chest for a big reveal, but bare them completely and allow motives to churn against each other until answers come out of the woodwork.

All those lines between evil and good, right and wrong are stretched and skewed, creating a sea of gray area surrounding almost every character involved with the heist. It blends with hints given at the start of the film, relaxing the necessity for surprise and, instead, gives us tangible characters to enjoy. Though Russell Gewirtz' script is tightly crafted and interesting, the nuanced, blossoming changes that Lee pulls from these characters helps them outstretch much farther than the text allows. The interplay between the NYPD and White as an outside, possibly problematic source electrifies the momentum all the way to the gut-shot conclusion -- which, to be frank, is a personal favorite ending that makes the film all the more comprehensive.

Giving us everything upfront in Inside Man is a fantastic genre-breaker, especially with the knowledge that humanizing director Spike Lee is behind the strings. Little do we know that plenty of secondary secrets and motivations would slowly ink into the picture; is Frazier responsible for lost money in the force, or why exactly does the owner want Madeleine White to bargain with armed felons? No stones remain unturned in Spike Lee's thriller, whether we're talking necessary narrative extra nuggets of character interest. Complex yet natural and rewarding with shots of humor and intelligent suspense around every corner, Inside Man still showcases his obvious grasp on earnest human interaction within a thoroughly compelling, albeit unconventional, caper film.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

As with Universal's recent release of Spy Game, Inside Man was a bit of a high-definition rock star during HD-DVD's heyday that needed to be re-released on the Blu-ray format. Sporting an industrial color scheme and splashes of color and texture through terrific photography, the 2.35:1 (actually closer to 2.4:1) presentation translates over with a beefed up 1080p VC-1 encode that bolsters the lush modern visual design. Taking the bitrate up between 28-35 mbps, the crisp blue atmosphere sports a range of bluish / gray shades and contrast levels that shine with modern polish.

Some slight macroblocking a mildly excessive noise can be spotted against backdrops when looked at closely, elements that overstep digital grain by a step or two. Outside of that, this disc's visual presentation is extremely impressive; textures in differing articles of clothing, grain embedded within marble and stone, and intricate elements in backdrops -- like waffle pattering in the NYPD truck and supplies in rooms within the bank -- all hold their details extremely well. Flesh tones are handled well, if maybe a little on the warm side, while the highly contrast visual design renders splendidly inky blacks and admirably attractive midrange elements. It maintains a crispness that appears largely edge enhancement and noise reduction free, making Inside Man a very healthy high-definition experience.

As with Universal's other updates, Inside Man also receives a boost from Dolby Digital 5.1 sound to a DTS HD Master Audio presentation. Though an action-infused suspense film, it's still a Spike Lee picture -- which largely relies in verbal clarity and musical attitude. Each of those elements sound great, while the rapid dialogue never falling to inaudible levels. The ever-present jazz accompaniment sounds good, if a little on the low side. When the sound is pushed, such as with any scenes involving yelling from the hijackers or any of the sporadic special effects like smoke bombs or metallic ambient effects, this Master Audio track handles it with admirably crisp authority. Though the visual department is a healthy secondary disc to showcase displays, the sound isn't quite as active to merit that; however, the track's ability to preserve the material is very strong.

Subtitles are available in a trove of options (English SDH, French, Italian, German, Castilian and L.A. Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Greek) while DTS 5.1 options are available in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese options.

Special Features:

Commentary with Spike Lee:
Always candid and entertaining to listen to, Spike Lee reflects on his time with the film to both intelligent and purely joyful extents. He has a ball reflecting on his scenes with Washington and Plummer, while interconnecting many scenes -- especially the pizza delivery scene -- to Dog Day Afternoon and Do the Right Thing. Some material he covers also revolves around a few post-9/11 elements. Though marked with a few lengthier expanses of silence, Lee's commentary here stays entertaining first, enlightening second.

Making of Inside Man (10:20, SD MPEG-2):
Though it's a little on the short side, this making-of featurette definitely sidesteps the stigmas of commonplace marketing-style pieces. Featuring lengthy shots of the full cast going over read-throughs of the script and interview time with each of the major stars, it stays very snappy and intriguing without seeming too much like back-slapper content. Lee gives us overviews regarding each character, his casting choice for each, and how they meshed together for Inside Man, while producer Brian Grazer also discusses the cast's ease with working alongside Lee.

Number 4 (10:08, SD MPEG-2):
Previously only available on a Target bonus disc for standard-definition users, this one-on-one with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington covers their times working together on four separate films -- Malcolm X, He Got Game, Mo' Better Blues, and Inside Man. It's simply a reflection on their experiences during their films, showing how the two have grown as artists since their first pairing. Sometimes, both of them turn to the "audience" and tell little bits of their stories, which keeps it very conversational and warming.

Also available are a set of five compelling Deleted Scenes (19:38, SD MPEG-2) that simply would've dragged down the pacing of the film. This disc has also been BD-Live enabled, as well as containing Bookmark / Chapter favorite selection for easy reference to key points in the picture.

Final Thoughts:

If you're a topical filmmaker like Spike Lee and want to step away from your messages a bit towards something more accessible, then Inside Man is the kind of picture you want to make. Blending the director's dialogue-driven style with suspenseful excitement around almost every corner, it's assuredly his simplest and most accessible film. But it's not without a vein of intelligence, making it a very smart bank heist picture that concentrates on character intensity for its thrills. Universal's Blu-ray boosts up the visuals by quite a few notches over the standard-definition counterpart, while offering a strong DTS Master Audio option and all the Special Features from the previous concoctions. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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