Inside Man (United States, 2006)
With so much talent involved - both in front of and behind the camera - one has a right to anticipate something special from Inside Man. Does it deliver? Spike Lee's latest joint is a workmanlike thriller that provides solid performances; a mixture of comedy, tension, and drama; and an engaging storyline. But there's nothing extraordinary about the movie. It's watchable and occasionally compelling, but it will not stand out as one of 2006's great motion pictures.
One could argue that a cast with this much wattage hasn't been assembled since Twilight (Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, Reese Witherspoon). In addition to headliners Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, Inside Man features supporting performances from Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, and Willem Dafoe. You know a film has an impressive cast when the best Dafoe can do is fifth billing. But if proof was ever needed that gathering a large group of A-list stars doesn't automatically translate into a great film, this is it.
Inside Man has a standard-issue heist plot, pitting bank robbers (with hostages) against cops while an interested third party muddies the waters. Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) is the leader of a gang of four masked men who lock down a Manhattan bank. Holed up with several dozen hostages, he appears to be executing the perfect bank robbery - but he's more interested in the contents of one safety deposit box than in the vault's cash. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are the plainclothes officers in charge of the negotiations. Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe) has an itchy trigger finger, and is anxious to storm the bank. Meanwhile, the head of Case Banks' board of directors (Christopher Plummer) is concerned that the contents of his safety deposit box not become public knowledge. To ensure that, he hires Madeliene White (Jodie Foster), a "fixer" with highly placed contacts and an impeccable reputation, to broker a deal with Russell.
The strength of the film is that the criminals start smart and finish smart. There's no third act breakdown of intelligence designed to facilitate a clean ending. For most of the film, Russell and Frazier are evenly matched. In their cat-and-mouse game, they take turns outwitting one another. The script would have been better served by presenting more of their brinksmanship. The introduction of White is an unnecessary complication that serves no purpose beyond giving Jodie Foster something to do. Not that Foster does a bad job - it's just that her character isn't needed.
Denzel Washington is as reliable as ever. His portrayal of Frazier is probably one he could do in his sleep, but he invests the character with a fierce determination and a degree of moral ambiguity. Fundamentally, Frazier is a good guy, but he has his price. Clive Owen is hamstrung by the need to disguise his face and speak with a clipped American accent. It's tough to shine in those circumstances.
Director Spike Lee is in "big budget" mode, which means he presents things in a reasonably straightforward manner. There are flashes of vintage Lee material (such as when a kid is shown playing a Grand Theft Auto-type video game highlighted by black-on-black violence), but these are sidebars. The main story is told in a clear-cut manner, with periods of moderate tension and a surprisingly high quota of low-key humor. No one would classify Inside Man as a comedy, but it's less heavy (and heavy-handed) than one might expect from a Spike Lee picture.
When Inside Man focuses on the give-and-take between cop and criminal, it's on sound ground. Their interaction is like a high stakes game of poker, with neither knowing the other's hand and each uncertain where the bluffing begins. Within this context, things work. As a whole, the movie is entertaining but unremarkable. Exiting the theater, my comment to a colleague was that I enjoyed it, but it should have been better. And therein lies the curse of expecting too much from a March release - even a high-profile one.
Inside Man (United States, 2006)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Screenplay: Russell Gewirtz
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Terence Blanchard
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures