Inside Man (2006)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by: Spike Lee
When I first saw the advertising for this movie, I was on board. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen in a slick-looking heist film? Done. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when flipping through some free movie previews magazine they pass out at theatres did I learn that Inside Man was a Spike Lee joint. Spike Lee?!? Really?!? What’s he doing making a movie that I’m interested in seeing? That hadn’t happened since 1998’s He Got Game.
But, here it was, a Spike Lee movie that got my attention. It helped that, on the surface, it wasn’t a typical Spike Lee movie. He has said that’s what drew him to the project. However, while the film is a different type of movie for Spike, it still carries a lot of Lee hallmarks, both to the benefit and detriment of the film.
On the positive side, Spike is able to translate his love and intimate knowledge of New York City into the film, giving the characters and setting an air of authenticity that immediately puts the audience into the setting. Spike gets his characters, and is able to give them and the movie a genuine, New York feel. Also, he has a knack of getting the best out of Denzel Washington (this is their fourth movie together), and this is no exception. Spike lets Denzel play characters that are rough around the edges, which allows Denzel to make them more interesting.
In Inside Man, Washington plays Detective Keith Frazier, a man with Denzel’s trademark quiet dignity, but is by no means a saint. He’s self-interested, cocky, unable to commit to his girlfriend, and possibly a thief. He is a complicated character in a movie filled with complicated characters with complicated motives involved in a complicated plot. Lee juggles these characters, motives, and plotlines magnificently, creating a slow-burning heist film where things generally aren’t as they seem.
The performances by Washington, Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all top-notch, and the film is at its best when the characters are interacting. The dialogue is at its best when characters are casually conversing with one another. The reveals are good, and the payoff, while not as energetic as the first three acts of the film, is satisfying. Lee even manages to curtail much of the preachiness that often bogs down his work (one scene dealing with issues of race is actually one of the film’s best).
On the negative side, Spike Lee is still incapable of filming a movie that doesn’t rely on tired techniques that take the audience out of the film. We get it Spike, you pioneered the shot where the actor is on the dolly with the camera, with the subject standing still and the background whizzing by. It worked great in Mo Better Blues, but it’s time to let it go (it’s past time). You finally took yourself out of your movies, and they got better. Let this one go too.
Along those lines, while the Terrence Blanchard score for the movie is great, Spike lets it take over a little too often. And, while some of his scenes about the racial tensions of the post-9/11 New York hit their marks, his commentary about violent video games misses, mostly because the graphics in the game are terrible and completely unrepresentative of modern video games, but also because it feels shoe-horned in for no other reason than Spike has something to say. Also, while Foster is excellent in her ball-busting role, her character seems a little unnecessary for the film.
Other than these minor complaints, the film is engrossing and one of the best heist films to come along in awhile (even if it is derivative of early films like Dog Days Afternoon). First and foremost, it is an adventure ride, but an adventure with enough subtext to appreciate with both sides of one’s brain.