inside man (2006)

Wow. It has been a long time since I've done one of these, but it's good to be back. I could blame my absence on schoolwork piling up or something like that, but in actuality there just didn't seem to be much reason to run out to the theater and see any of the flicks that have been coming out in the past few months. The one that finally did get me out there, Inside Man, didn't look particularly interesting in the trailers, that is, until it got to the name of the director: Spike Lee. I can't pretend to be any authority on Lee's work; I've only seen two of his films: Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour. However, both struck a cord with me and are two of my personal favorites. I expected that Lee would create a bank robbery flick that was at least a bit out of the ordinary and, I'm happy to say, he delivered. Inside Man could have been so average, but with Lee's small touches and moments of social commentary, it's raised from its B-movie premise and becomes a solid film. This is not to say that it's anything approaching an A-picture, but Lee's direction assists the film enough that it at least distinguishes itself from the ranks of run-of-the-mill thrillers we get so much of these days. 

All of these movies start off with the same basic premise, and without people like Lee around to spice things up, these flicks can get pretty damn boring. The film starts off the same way that the trailer did; the giant face of Clive Owen comes onto the screen and states that he has constructed "the perfect bank robbery". Yeah, right, I've never heard that one before. How many times do these movie masterminds have to make these assertions before we, the audience, simply stop believing them? In the old days, the supervillain would tie the hero in chains and begin to spout off this sort of monologue just before setting his master plan into motion. Here, in 2006, it appears as though we, the people who have been filed into the theater to witness this spectacle, are now the ones in chains being told of the villain's master plan, trapped for the next two hours in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers, and there's no escape. (Thanks to Lee and his crew, our captivity is made an enjoyable one.) This opening monologue is important for two reasons: 1) As an audience, we become instinctively attached to the first character we see on screen. By giving us this moment with Owen, alone and unarmed against a stark black background, Lee has ensured that will we not fear him during the film, and, while we may not always root for him, we want to see him succeed. 2) The other reason for this opening is, Lee wants the audience to get used to taking orders. Owen goes through his plan in precision grocery-list style. He tells us where, when, how, what, who, and instructs us to pay close attention. In the opening moments of Inside Man, we are the hostages. After that, the film sets off with a bang. There is no time taken to set up a pre-robbery world, the film simply drops us directly into the chaos from the get-go. The bank is invaded, the hostages are taken, and before you can say "Dog Day", Detective Denzel Washington is on the case. His character is presented to us as a lower-level detective who's looking to be promoted to first-class, he's got a girlfriend he wants to marry and is suspected of embezzling money in the past. These details are completely inconsequential, and I question the necessity of their inclusion in the film at all. It was obvious that Lee was going for a slight film noir homage (if you don't believe me, check out the lighting on the film's closing scene) with Washington's character, and he should have gone all the way by giving us the mysterious hard-boiled detective; knowing too much about his personal life kind of takes away from the character. The film basically exists in two worlds, inside the bank with Clive Owen and the street outside the bank with Denzel Washington. I have to say, I'm a sucker for suspense films that use as few sets as possible, so this was right up my alley. What I'm not a sucker for is the growing trend of the charismatic, genius villain who isn't really evil but is just trying to teach everyone a life lesson by killing people/robbing them/blowing stuff up. I thought Inside Man might be headed in that direction, but thankfully, Saw 3 this is not. There is a method behind it all, the film walks dangerously close to giving us the usual surprise-shock ending, but it doesn't flaunt the few tricks it has up its sleeve and never relies on them, leaving it all up to the solid movie-making of the people involved. Smart choice, and a rarity. Another smart choice was casting Clive Owen as this mastermind, he's one of those actors that exudes enough coolness that I'd watch him in just about anything.

One of the best parts of Inside Man is that it gives support to the school of thought that a mediocre script can still result in a good film. The script really is nothing special. Take the standard cop dialogue, mix in the standard "smart bank robber" dialogue, add in a dash of conspiracy and cover-up, and blend together with some tense scenes to keep the audience guessing and a few not-too-surprising surprises later you've got yourself a screenplay. However, the film changed during the translation from script to screen thanks to a collection of very talented people being attached to it. First off, as I've mentioned, the honors have to go to Spike Lee for his direction of the film. Without the social commentary on physical stereotypes of all kinds, videogame violence and the powers of a capitalistic society, this would have been a pretty simple and ultimately dull experience. But, that's Spike Lee for you. The man seems to be able to take any premise and infuse all sorts of messages about society as a whole into the story. The result is a film that tries to entertain as well as hold a mirror to society and does a pretty good job at both. Maybe he doesn't take it as far as his other films, but it's there, which is what really counts. He knows how to up the tension and also knows when to back off, giving the film some great moments like the inclusion of a scene between Clive Owen and a young boy which adds quite a bit to the overall picture. Next is the film's fantastically fitting score from Lee's long-time collaborator Terrence Blanchard. His score for 25th Hour is one of my favorites of the last few years, and he delivers one here that, while not quite as memorable, adds that extra something to the film. It's a rendition of the classic "cop" beat that spells old-time heist flick and really matches the tone that Lee sets with his images. Speaking of images, there's alot of problems that can arise from using the same set over and over when it comes to keeping the film interesting for an audience to watch. Inside Man side steps that by giving us our sets from just about every angle through crane shots and low angle perspectives, and also adding in some nice filters in a few spots (like the interogation room). As the sun goes down, the visuals get darker, letting us see how the sets look in low light as well. It's never a boring film to watch. Noone knows New York quite like Spike Lee and he is able to capture the tone on the streets beautifully. The acting from everyone involved is some great stuff. We get two stong leads in Washington and Owen and when they go head to head it's a match up resulting in some great scenes. Washington's job is exceptionally good because he doesn't fall into his usual pitfall of looking like he's begging for an Oscar. He's comfortable on screen and accepts the film for what it is. He's never overly-anxious to deliver powerful lines that he believes will stun the audience, he simply plays the part, which is the best thing he could have done. He's fantastic. Owen's coolness and overall persona drives all of his scenes, he skates around the line of madness and genius just enough to keep you guessing about the true intentions of the character for much of the film. The supporting roles are filled out by Jodie Foster and Willem Dafoe, each doing a capable job, but actually delivering nothing of real standout substance. All in all, it's Owen, Washington, Blanchard and Lee who bring the best out in this movie. 

And that's about it, basically check the film out for some good suspense and a good time before we enter the summer blockbuster season which is fast approaching. The coming weeks are bringing some interesting looking films, I'm sure I'll get out there for a few of them. 2006 is looking exciting if more directors like Lee are around to give us films like this one. It's a solid suspense picture that adds some commentary into the mix. Hopefully the film's financial success with get us a few more flicks with the sensibilities of this one. Taking many of its cues from, and even tossing in homages to, films like Dog Day Afternoon, Inside Man attempts to self-style itself as the heist movie for our generation. We'll have to see how time treats it, but it's a worthy candidate.