Inside Man opens with a challenge from criminal mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) to the viewer to try to keep up as he lays out the labyrinthine details of his perfect crime. “Pay strict attention to what I say, because I choose my words carefully, and I never repeat myself,” he warns with smug complacency.
This is only half true, as it turns out. Russell’s words may be chosen carefully, but he does repeat himself occasionally. Still, he’s probably as smart as he thinks he is. Inside Man may not be quite that smart, but it’s pretty close, despite some gaping plot holes. And thanks to smart direction from Spike Lee, generally top-notch performances from a stellar cast, and pungent dialogue from first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, it feels even smarter than it is.
Denzel Washington brings laid-back intensity and breezy alertness to the role of Det. Keith Frazier, a canny second-string police negotiator assigned to manage a hostage situation at a Manhattan financial district bank. Amid a flurry of activity of New York’s finest setting up a perimeter around the bank, the dapper Frazier settles in for the long haul, watching his opponent’s moves like a Central Park chess hustler, waiting for the first mistake. He’s clearly a man who knows the drill — and eventually he begins to suspect that this isn’t it.
Owen (King Arthur) is ferociously calm and focused as the leader of a well-organized criminal operation that brazenly seizes control of the bank as confidently and aggressively as the perps in Die Hard, then proceeds to make some unexpected moves that leave cops and viewers wondering where he’s going. In an inspired move, the masked and uniformed bad guys force their prisoners to dress like them, making it impossible for police to tell hostage from criminal.
After a misguided turn on the other end of the hostage equation in John Q (which found him holding a hospital emergency ward at gunpoint) — not to mention even darker roles in Man on Fire and Training Day — Washington returns to more or less good-guy status with gusto.
He creates a complex, layered character who shows a more ambiguous side in flash-forward sequences to the aftermath of the crisis as Frazier and his partner Det. Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) debrief the former hostages at police headquarters. In these interviews Frazier’s surface compassion and blandly genial humor seems to mask a subtle antagonism, even passive-aggression.
Then, as it becomes clear that most or all of the hostages seem to have survived while the perpetrators have melted away, we realize that Frazier is probing for perps among the apparent former hostages — including bank employees, among whom may be numbered an inside man. (As you might expect, the title has a clever alternate meaning as well.)
The story takes another twist with the introduction of bank chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), a white-haired, patrician philanthropist who responds to the news that his bank is being robbed with due apprehension, or perhaps something more. Then he does something curious: He calls someone named Madeleine White, played by Jodie Foster.
Who is Madeleine White? It’s hard to say. Apparently she’s an ultra-connected, high-powered… well, what exactly? One character supplies her with an extremely harsh four-letter descriptor, but that’s hardly an answer. The most I can say is that if you are very rich and have a very sensitive problem, you call her, and she works her uptown mojo for you, fixes things somehow, and adds you to her network.
Any time anyone tries to press her for specifics of any kind, Miss White gives them the old “if you have to ask/need to know/not at liberty to divulge” brush-off. “It’s a little beyond your pay grade,” she tells Frazier at one point with a patronizing smile. The problem is that in the end the viewer is still as much in the dark as Frazier not only regarding what exactly she does, but why she’s in the picture at all. I’m willing to accept Case calling her, given her alleged rep and his situation; I just don’t see what Gewirtz and Lee thought she added to the story, in light of how irrelevant she ultimately turns out to be. Her character is a puzzle, underdeveloped both dramatically and conceptually.
But Lee and Gewirtz more than make up for this with the authenticity and freshness they bring to their other characters and their interactions. Minor characters stand out as individuals and bona fide New Yorkers, and if race and culture is a running theme — which of course it is, this being a Spike Lee Joint — it’s generally unforced and not your face. In contrast to the hyper-polarized race relations of last year’s Crash, characters in this film talk about and express race and ethnicity in realistic and plausible ways.
Although the language is unnecessarily harsh and crass at times, the violence of the thugs’ menace and threats far outstrips any actual violence they perpetrate. In fact, in the end I can safely say that the most shocking act of violence in the film takes place, provocatively, in a handheld video game belonging to a young black boy among the hostages.
In one of the film’s many unexpectedly humorous scenes, this boy sits apart from the other hostages playing the game and eating NYPD-supplied pizza with one of his captors, who seems taken aback both by the shocking brutality of the game and by the boy’s nonchalant admiration for the bank robbers. “You think robbing banks is cool, huh?” the cool bank robber asks with schizophrenic distaste. Shaking his head, he adds, “I’m going to have to talk to your father about that game.”
Inside Man wants to be more than a formula heist flick, and spends an anticlimactic final half hour converging toward a sense of greater depth and ethical complexity without quite pulling it all together. On the other hand, the film respects the audience’s intelligence enough not to spell out every aspect of its own cleverness. Long after the credits roll, you may find yourself still pulling apart the inconsistencies, putting the puzzle pieces together, or both. While the film is rolling, in any case, it’s unlikely that you’ll be bored.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.