Review: Inside Man

Spike Lee aims for the mainstream with Inside Man, a bank heist caper anchored by another strong performance by Denzel Washington. While satisfying on many levels, the film is not an especially exciting or challenging one. As a result, it may have trouble drawing viewers who can find similar material almost every night on television.

Washington plays Keith Frazier, a New York City police detective under a cloud of suspicion about missing drug money. With his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor), he is assigned to handle hostage negotiations in a bank robbery in the city’s financial district. The robbers are led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a briskly efficient criminal mastermind who anticipates the cops’ every move. Complicating matters is Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a “fixer” hired by bank founder Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to protect sensitive material in his safe deposit box.

Apart from predictable twists and reversals–some old hat, some genuinely clever–the script has little to distinguish it from other bank heist stories. As expected, Frazier locks horns with White, tries to checkmate Russell, and copes with problems with his personal life, while the crooks carry out their operation. The aftermath of the robbery reveals a surprise or two as political wrangling comes into play, but nothing that upsets the film’s generally placid tone. It’s all staged in a crisp, straightforward manner, although director Lee doesn’t seem all that interested with the nuts and bolts of genre conventions. Too much footage is wasted on cops setting up barricades, for example. Or on crooks herding hostages into and out of offices.

But once the parameters of the script are set, Lee can settle down to what he does best: document the often prickly interactions of as many different New Yorkers as can fit into the story. Owen, wearing a mask for most of the film, isn’t used very well, and the ingratiating Foster can’t do much with her idealized role. But the supporting characters–from a Sikh angered by bigoted cops to a chain-smoking Albanian divorcée–are superbly drawn. Washington is in command of his role, and he elevates the film whenever he is on screen. His scenes with Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe, underplaying excellently as a police tactician, crackle with the charge of professionals at work. Even in their jokes and playful asides, they have the focus of veterans who are committed to what they do.

In fact, the working class ethos may have been what interested Lee most about the project. The actual robbery, with its formulaic twists and hoary tricks, won’t surprise anyone familiar with Law & Order or CSI. The film’s payoff is too muted to have much impact, and tension as a whole isn’t exploited very effectively. What comes across the strongest in Inside Man is the hard-working Washington matching wits with anonymous foes. He’s something to see, but even his fans may wait to view Inside Man at home rather than in theaters.

Cast and crew

Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kim Director, James Ransone, Carlos Andrés Gómez, Bernard Rachelle, Peter Gerety, Victor Colicchio, Cassandra Freeman, Peter Frechette, Gerry Vichi, Waris Ahluwalia, Ken Leung.

Credits: Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Russell Gewirtz. Produced by Brian Grazer. Executive producers: Daniel M. Rosenberg, Jon Kilik, Karen Kehela Sherwood, Kim Roth. Director of photography: Matthew Libatique. Editor: Barry Alexander Brown. Production designer: Wynn Thomas. Music by Terence Blanchard. Costume designer: Donna Berwick. A Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Brian Grazer production.

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