The screenplay by first-timer Russell Gewirtz doesn't meander with any sort of prolonged setup. The film opens with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) coldly boasting to the camera how he's schemed the perfect bank robbery, and over the course of next few minutes, that's precisely what we see unfold. The police are quickly called in, led by Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a detective who hopes seizing control of this debacle could help salvage his tarnished reputation. With partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) by his side, Frazier attempts to establish some sense of dominance over the situation, preferring to bide his time to contact the robbers rather than overeagerly call and immediately negotiate for the release of the couple dozen hostages trapped inside. It's a deliberate but ultimately futile effort; these thieves are clearly well-versed in police procedure, and there isn't a chink to be found in their well-fortified armor. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear to Frazier that this is more than just an especially well-schemed heist, and he's determined to uncover whatever it is Russell and his men are truly after. Further complicating things is the arrival of Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a speed bump brought in by the bank's chairman of the board (Christopher Plummer) who founded his empire with this branch and fears that a secret he's devoted the past six decades to burying may re-emerge.
Inside Man is teeming with homages to films like Dog Day Afternoon, but it's unlike any heist flick I've ever seen. Part of what made Dog Day Afternoon so fascinating was watching Sonny struggle after finding himself so impossibly far in over his head. Sonny's plan was sloppy and barely half-thought-out, and much of the appeal of the film is owed to watching how him flail his way through that mess. This comes in stark contrast to Inside Man: Dalton Russell is consistently in control, and every eventuality has been carefully considered and accomodated for. Russell marks one of most laconic adversaries seen in a heist film; there are no overwrought monologues where he twirls his figurative moustache and rambles at length as he fills the gallant hero in on his nefarious scheme. He's quiet, calculating, and never once lets anyone pierce through.
In fact, much of the tension throughout Inside Man stems from the audience being kept at arm's length. We know that there's much more unfolding than just a particularly well-engineered heist -- of course, we have the added benefit of already having seen a trailer with Frazier shouting "this ain't no bank robbery!" -- but viewers are kept nearly as disoriented as to Russell's true motivations as Frazier is. For much of the film, there's little indication what the end game is supposed to be. We're only clued into who a couple of the robbers are in this anonymous mass of New Yorkers, which still puts us one up on Frazier, and there's a genuine sense of shock when the movie gradually reveals that not everything is as it appears on surface. In same way, Frazier isn't a traditional action hero, and despite his best efforts, he's consistently kept a couple of steps behind the robbers. He's not the centerpiece of any absurdly over-the-top shoot-outs, and the comeuppance that the Big Summer Action Hero inevitably delivers in the last reel doesn't come in the expected way.
Inside Man does indeed break away from most of the usual thriller conventions. One of the other similarities to Dog Day Afternoon is that Inside Man is so disinterested in stock action theatrics. The film is ultimately about these two men, with the detective trying every possible angle to break into the bank robber's head and put an end to the ordeal cleanly and quickly. Lee builds a remarkably strong sense of tension throughout, and even though this is a dialogue-heavy film that breaks the two hour mark, he ensures that the pacing remains nimble. The story is never derailed by any weepy subplots or six page monologues, remaining as intensely focused as the film's bank robbers are. Its construction is somewhat unconventional but extremely effective as Lee intersperses throughout the siege footage of Mitchell and Russell interrogating customers and employees that had been trapped inside the bank. They're clearly trying to figure out who was an innocent bystander and who was in on the heist, and this add another layer of tension; it's so often taken for granted that a movie's going to end with the hero triumphant and the bad guys either bloodied and lifeless on the pavement or hauled away in cuffs. These investigations mean that Russell pulls his scheme off as planned, and I was intrigued to see precisely how he did it. I don't think the last 15 or 20 minutes of Inside Man quite live up to the heights of everything that came before it, but the ending isn't poorly thought out or any sort of last minute switch to catch the audience off-guard. Given the strength of the rest of movie, I could shrug off these modest shortcomings in its final reel.
Taking the reins of such a commercial project doesn't mean Spike Lee was stripped of his distinctive stamp as a director. Lee still manages to squeeze in some social commentary, and for the most part, he does it deftly and without being too heavy-handed. Sharply written, taut and tense, and tremendously well acted, Inside Man is both Lee's best film in years and easily one of strongest thrillers available on HD DVD at the moment. Highly Recommended.
Video: Inside Man's 2.39:1 high definition visuals are immediately striking, opening with a tight shot of Clive Owen that's crisp, immaculately detailed, and bolstered by deep, substantial black levels. This HD DVD looks phenomenal, boasting a razor-sharp, almost tactile three-dimensional appearance with very few flaws that managed to catch my eye. Matthew Libatique's cinematography translates exceptionally well to high definition; Inside Man is among just a handful of movies where I found myself entranced by how beautifully lit it is. The costume design brings out a palette of colors that are bold and vivid while still looking natural and without that sort of Hollywood exaggeration. The level of detail is strong enough to bring out such subtleties as the texture of cloth and fabric. There's also a brief but significant shot of an envelope that's pulled out of a safe deposit box, with a name typed onto it in tiny text that's clear and distinct in high-def but would almost certainly have been an indiscernable smear on DVD. Film grain remains tight and unintrusive throughout, not marred by any visible wear or compression artifacting. Contrast is generally strong as well, with the interrogation scenes intentionally blown out. The only problem I spotted was that black levels aren't as robust as expected during some of the scenes at night that was filmed under limited light, but that likely dates back to the original photography and really shouldn't be considered a flaw with this HD DVD. A very strong effort.
Audio: Inside Man is another in an increasing number of catalog titles from Universal to offer lossless TrueHD audio. This HD DVD sounds fantastic, although the dialogue-driven nature of the film and limited action theatrics leave the sound design somewhat subdued. The surrounds are reserved primarily to reinforce the fantastic '70s-flavored score and to provide some light ambiance. The rear channels flesh out the reverb in the interrogation scenes, also offering some directionality with certain lines of dialogue, a phone's incessant ringing, and controlled bursts of gunfire. Imaging is stronger across the front channels, and bass response remains tight and punchy when Inside Man calls for it. The film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly as well. Inside Man's soundtrack may not be as bombastic or dynamic as most, but it's a solid fit for the tone of the film, and I don't have any qualms with what Universal has done with this release.
Also included are Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 tracks and subtitles in English and French. A DVS (Descriptive Video Source) option has also been provided for viewers who are blind or have limited sight.
Extras: All of Inside Man's extras are carried over from the 2006 DVD release, presented again in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen. There's really not all that much on here, though. The first of the extras is "The Making of Inside Man" (10 min.), a featurette that's anchored around the usual lightweight EPK-style interviews and a smattering of clips from the film. The quality of the behind-the-scenes footage and a peek at the cast's first table read liven it up a bit, though.
Also clocking in at ten minutes is "Number Four", a light, breezy chat with Denzel Washington and Spike Lee as they talk about working together for the fourth time. The two of them chat about each of the movies they've made together, with Lee taking particular delight in discussing Washington's performance in Malcolm X, along with mulling over whether or not their films have made any difference and discussing the limited power blacks wield in Hollywood. I enjoyed it, but I wish this featurette had either been more tightly focused or given a much heftier runtime.
It's too bad Denzel Washington wasn't around to pile into the recording booth with Spike Lee as he recorded the disc's commentary track. It's a fantastic commentary when Lee bothers to say something, but there's an inordinate amount of dead air, and once Inside Man breaks past the 45 minute mark, the director seems to spend more time silently watching the movie than he does talking about it. There are some great notes in here, though, touching on how he offered Washington his choice of the detective role or the mastermind of the robbery, unexpectedly meeting with Willem Dafoe in the john, pointing out the nods to Dog Day Afternoon and the carryovers from his previous films, and how he landed the project and delivered it at a rather modest $50 million budget. There are a good number of technical notes, with Lee noting how certain key shots were accomplished, from camera placement to overcranking the footage to putting Washington on a dolly. Lee approaches the commentary differently than most directors, jabbing with short, quick comments rather than delving into any one element for any length of time or rattling off lengthy stories. I think the commentary would've been stronger if Lee had someone else in the booth to have a conversation with him; as it is, the track is still worth a listen, but it's so subdued that it's better left playing in the background.
Lee notes in his audio commentary that Washington improvised his way through the interrogations scattered throughout Inside Man, and all of that footage -- more than 17 minutes in total -- is crammed together into one reel as part of the disc's deleted scenes. Also included are extended versions of the news reports seen throughout the movie, and a set of three minute-long scenes with some additional dialogue rounds out the balance.
Conclusion: Inside Man is further proof that a movie can be commercially successfully without mindlessly pandering or being cartoonishly over-the-top. Its final reel doesn't quite live up to everything offered throughout the rest of the film, but Inside Man is a smart, sensationally well acted movie, confident enough in the strength of its writing and performances that it doesn't need to resort to the usual thriller clichés to establish a taut, tense atmosphere. The quality of the presentation lives up to the lofty expectations swirling around these high-def formats, and although the extras are light and somewhat uneven, there's just enough substance for them to warrant a look. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.