As detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) trudges home after a long day, he quietly enters his bedroom, and from the right side of the room a pair of women’s legs seductively scissor-slink into view and land softly on the bed. It’s a simple, beautiful moment, one that could have only been conceived by Spike Lee. Cinematic grace notes like this one elevate Lee’s Inside Man from the status of sturdy bank-heist thriller to a sensational, don’t-you-dare-miss-it evening at the movies.
After years of near-misses, Lee clearly felt that he needed to shake up his inner-artist (not to mention strengthen his box office muscle — the movie made $29 million dollars last weekend, the biggest opening ever for the director). So he ventured into unfamiliar terrain — a movie that he didn’t write, and a thriller to boot. It’s the last thing you’d expect from Lee. In that respect, Inside Man is as much a career reboot as Match Point was for Woody Allen. But Inside Man remains unmistakably “a Spike Lee joint.” His prints are all over this smart, captivating, involving, tricky and thoughtful motion picture.
Running on full: Washington and Ejiofor
Starting with slick, sophisticated opening credits that would have been worthy of the late Saul Bass (the man responsible for Hitchcock’s most memorable credits sequences, including The Birds and Psycho), and rapidly moving into a situation where an elaborate bank job is put into play by a group of white-masked bandits, Inside Man draws you in with a magnetic intensity and a sweet, sweet symphony of intriguing characters. Down to the smallest cameo of the street cop (Victor Colicchio) who happens on the robbery-in-progress and later reveals a mild racist streak, to a 13-year-old hostage with a PSP and an innocent-yet-disturbing admiration for violence, there’s hardly an onscreen persona who doesn’t get full developmental treatment. It’s rare that a screenplay is this abundantly rich, but Russell Gerwitz’s first-time work is just that. It’s probably what attracted Lee to the project in the first place.
As things progress, the narrative evolves into something more than your garden-variety heist flick. The ringleader, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), is a smooth-talking criminal mastermind, with a plan so exquisitely perfect that, in retrospect, you can’t help but admire his genius. A little bit of time shifting — as Frazier interrogates hostages after their release — helps enhance the movie’s surprises.
There is more to Russell’s motive, you see, than simply stealing money, and the bank’s Chairman of the Board, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), instinctively fears this. Case has something stashed in a safe deposit box that he’d prefer never see the light of day, lest “a lot of questions” arise. So he employs uber-connected, cucumber-cool corporate clean-up gal Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to enter the fray and ensure that his valuables remain unseen.
This is where Inside Man gets really interesting. And if the contents of that safe deposit box aren’t surprising, what ultimately happens with them is.
Inside Man works on multiple levels simultaneously. It can be taken at face value as a thriller. But it also has a smattering of moral indignation toward the dreadful things some people will do to personally enrich themselves. This being a Lee film, there are the requisite instances of racial tension and an occasionally thump on the civil rights drum, especially the current knee-jerk hostility toward people of Middle Eastern descent. Lee and writer Gerwitz make sure these moments are played with a spoonful of humor to help the message go down.
For instance, a Sikh, one of a handful of hostages released by the robbers and immediately manhandled by the police, is beyond distraught by the removal of his turban, a key component of his religion.
“I go to the airport, I get harassed,” he complains to Detective Frazier.
“But I’ll bet you can get a cab, though,” Frazier shoots back with an easy grin.
The Sikh doesn’t smile, but the audience laps it up, thanks to Denzel Washington’s casual, good-natured way with a jibe. Hell, Hitler probably wouldn’t have minded being kidded by this guy.
Inside Man has plenty of gravity, but it’s a playful gravity. The movie is reminiscent of those great ’70s thrillers, filled with purpose and agenda.
Washington dazzles in the starring role. Sporting a white fedora that makes him look a little like a Florida real estate salesman, his Frazier has a bright, breezy appeal. The character has the requisite “problem” haunting him like a career-thwarting specter: He’s under investigation for a missing $140,000 from a crime scene. When offered an opportunity to clear his name and elevate his status to Detective First Grade, he snags it without a moment’s thought. But he’s not a corrupt cop — quite the opposite. His nobility is his shield, and his quest for closure leads the movie to its most dramatically satisfying confrontation.
Washington is flanked by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity), terrific here as Frazier’s sensible partner. Willem Dafoe adds a pinch of gruff as the tactical captain on duty, and Owen is utterly mesmerizing, despite the fact he plays much of the film under a wrap that makes him resemble Claude Rains in The Invisible Man.
The only misstep is Jodie Foster. While it’s wonderful to finally see Foster in a role where she’s not in a panic evading intruders or in a fury storming an airplane’s cockpit, the part of Madeline just barely taps the actress’s potential. Don’t get me wrong, she’s good — her Madeline is a frost queen — but the part feels undercooked.
That minor quibble aside, Inside Man is about as good as a movie gets. Watching it, you realize how mundane almost every other modern-day thriller is. And you realize how someone with the commanding talent of a Spike Lee can take a slumbering genre and shake it wide-awake.