Judging by it’s premise, it may seem that “Inside Man” is nothing but another generic heist picture. But that is but one of the movie’s very clever deceptions as it constantly plays with the audiences’ expectations, just when we thought we had it all figured out. Originally intended for Ron Howard (he bowed out to direct “Cinderella Man”), his replacement Spike Lee manages far more than to put a slick of fresh paint on a formula as old as time. Curious and off-beat at times, an intelligent script by Russell Gewirtz and powerhouse performances all-round makes this one of the most compelling thrillers since Michael Mann’s “Heat.”
The set-up is simple, or so it seems: A bank robbery in New York city quickly turns into a hostage situation as Clive Owen and his assistant trio of crooks barricade themselves in. As the Police arrive in numbers and lock down the block, it is up to detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take charge and diffuse the situation and complete the mission, namely bringing all the hostages out alive. So far, so predictable. Only, it’s not. The detectives quickly realise they’re being outsmarted at every turn, the motives behind the robbery becoming ever more cloudy. At the same time Jodie Foster’s fixer is hired by bank boss Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) who wants desperately to protect his assets in the bank the hold a dark secret, assets that we realise are exactly what the robbers are after. Lee tells the story in flashback form, intercutting with interrogations of the hostages who have all been dressed exactly like the robbers. It’s effective filmmaking in that it leaves the viewer baffled and confused, trying to make sense of events even after the end-credits have rolled. But the fact that not everything is safely explained doubtlessly adds to the “Inside Man’s” success, and makes it stand out.
Actingwise, it’s flawless. Washington is very rarely on poor form and here he once again proves himself king of the serious action picture. With little to no back story to his character, he nevertheless manages to build a not only credible but also very likeable character. Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe make for good assistants but the real meat as it were, is between Washington and Clive Owen. Despite wearing a mask for most of the film, Owen is creepily convincing. From his short opening monologue, through to the climatic deception, he could be named the Danny Ocean of the picture, the cool bank-robber, except that his motives are so intelligently scattered, he remains close to scary psychopath throughout. But Spike Lee, a native New-Yorker, is simply perfect perfect as a director and the vehicle’s biggest star: He expertly balances all the humour and the darker elements, slowing down the pace of the film and then exploding into action. And avoiding most of the cliches, the film can thus raise issues about morality, guilt, good versus evil, and corruption without ever beating us about the head with it. Some viewers may not appreciate it’s convoluted climax, or might demand a little more explanation but on the whole this offers some really gripping thrills and is quite far above regular action movies these days.
Had Ron Howard directed, James Honer may well have scored “Inside Man.” As it happened however, Spike Lee turned to jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard with whom he previously collaborated on “Malcolm X.” Unlike the film however, Blanchard takes a much more conventional approach in the music, a mainly electronics driven action score with some strings and horns in support. On album, the film’s main thematic idea is presented at the outset of “Ten Thirty” and is reprised several times. Few tracks offer any respite from the action, only a few tracks are allowed to provide any emotion. “Follow the Ring” near the album’s conclusion is one such example. It’s in many ways a decent action score but it would have provided Blanchard an opportunity to insert some of his own jazz sensibilities to create a truly good score. Totally nonsensical is the inclusion of an Indian style song over the opening and end credits, written by A.R. Rahman. Although it does hint at some of the film’s multicultural themes, it’s placement here is a huge detraction both in the film and on the album. Overall, it’s not the best introduction to Blanchard’s work.
“Inside Man” succeeds because it is intelligent. That may be a damning statement about the action movie industry in general but would take credit from this incredibly well structured and crafted film. For Denzel Washington, it adds yet another solid performance to a quite considerable portfolio. For Spike Lee it marks one of his best entries in the new millennium. See it therefore if you are a fan of either or just a fan of intelligent moviemaking.
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