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INSIDE MAN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Spike Lee
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: August 8, 2006

“You planned every inch of this thing right from the start. You got everybody marching to your beat, including me, and I’m through buying it!”

Film ***1/2

Inside Man is the latest film from one of our most important filmmakers, Spike Lee. It is also his most mainstream release to date. In a career that has spanned 20 years, Lee has made some of the most thought-provoking and powerful films of all time. The films he makes take hard-hitting issues and present them in an uncompromising form. Lee’s films have dealt with racism (Do the Right Thing), interracial love (Jungle Fever), college basketball (He Got Game), the effect of the 1977 Son of Sam murders (Summer of Sam) and the civil rights struggle (Malcolm X). Strangely enough, I have personally found Lee’s strongest work to be the two very different films he made about the harsh realities of drug-dealing (Clockers and 25th Hour).

Going into Inside Man I must admit that I was a bit skeptical of how the film would turn out, despite the amount of admiration I have for Lee as a filmmaker. What was advertised in the trailer look more like a routine thriller about a bank robbery. It represented a departure for Spike, which led me to expect something less than his previous films simply because I didn’t sense any of Lee’s storytelling qualities or social commentary to come into play.

But the truth is that Inside Man is a terrifically crafted thriller for numerous reasons. The first of which being that it’s way more than a heist movie. In fact, once the movie is over you’ll realize that the importance of the heist pales in comparison to other issues, such as the overall motive for the bank robbery. Another reason it works is the fantastic cast of actors, with two dynamic forces, Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, enjoying a unique game of cat and mouse.

The film opens with Dalton Russell (Owen) preparing to set in motion the “perfect bank robbery”, as he puts. He, along with three masked individuals (all disguised as painters) waltz into a bank in a Manhattan bank early in the business day. They then announce their presence by setting off smoke canisters and ordering everyone to hit the floor. He then instructs the hostages to hand over their cell phones, and to strip their clothes off and dress themselves up in the attire handed to them, which turn out to be the same clothing attire of the robbers. It’s clear by this point that Russell meant what he said when saying that this robbery would be perfect.

Before long, NYC detectives are on the scene. Cops and SWAT team members are organizing outside the bank’s doors waiting to see what happens next and when a crucial move should be made. Handling negotiations is Detective Keith Frazier (Washington). As smart and good a cop as Frazier is, he is fully aware that his adversary may be even smarter, since he appears to be one step ahead of the cops. But what Frazier can’t seem to figure out, through the images he sees on the bank’s video monitors, is why the bank robbers aren’t exactly eager to hit the vault and proceed to load their bags with cash. As he makes the call to Russell’s phone, Frazier immediately acknowledges the bank robber’s calm demeanor, which has him scratching his head even more. What exactly is the motive here? Is there something else of interest to the robbers inside the bank? Those are questions that Frazier can’t seem to find the answers to.

Another key character in the plot is Madeline White (Jodie Foster), who is what you could very much call a “fixer” in matters that involve high profile figures. She is ordered by the bank president, whose branch bank is the one being robbed, to possibly broker some sort of deal with the bank robbers. She has an impeccable reputation for making deals, thus her involvement in the matter.

Amongst all of this complicated plot material, Spike Lee manages to squeeze in some of his trademark social commentary, most of which involves subtle prejudice amongst minorities. Throughout the course of the film, several hostages are interrogated by Frazier. Since all the hostages appeared in the same attire as the bank robbers, it leaves the cops to be suspicious of everyone. It turns out, the very hostages interrogated happen to be of different minorities. One is African American, another a middle-eastern, another a Rabbi and another a Hispanic, each of whom cry out prejudice as they are questioned by the cops.

And as far as heist movies go, Inside Man is as unpredictable as they come. Throughout the course of the movie, the real motivation behind Dalton’s plan is so secretive, but once it’s revealed you are completely blown away. And at the same time, you come to realize that the whole plan makes a hell of a lot of sense.

The movie features perhaps the most impressive lineup of actors to appear in a single Spike Lee film. Washington, I always think, demonstrates his truest top form when he collaborates with Lee, and this film is no exception. The character goes way beyond your typical cop/hostage negotiator, and it’s especially in the film’s closing scenes where Washington reminds us what makes him the masterful charismatic actor that he is.

As for Clive Owen, this marks his boldest career move yet. Owen, obviously a good looking lad, is in a role that requires him to keep his face masked for a good bit of the film. For someone like him to do that and still walk away with the movie is something of a true accomplishment. I still maintain that Mr. Owen is the coolest actor to emerge since Steve McQueen.

And with Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor providing extremely solid work in the supporting department, Inside Man represents one of those pure can’t-lose film scenarios. Many times it’s said that a large cast of notable stars results in simply hype. Well, this is one case where the result is anything but hype.

Inside Man is a mixture of high voltage entertainment with the little distinctive touches that make Spike Lee’s films the superb films that they are.

Video ****

A Spike Lee joint always means a unique visual experience, and that is exactly what is delivered here and Universal’s anamorphic presentation delivers the superb visual goods as a result. Lee’s directing, along with the jolting camera work courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, help in delivering a mesmerizing video performance. Image is consistently clean and clear, and the level of detail is simply remarkable. High marks all across the board.

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix is strong as can be for a suspense thriller, though this is more of a dialogue-oriented one. The music score, courtesy of frequent Lee collaborator Terrence Blanchard, is always a striking sensation. Dialogue delivery is terrifically clear, and little tidbits of action and high wire suspense do the surround sound quality pure justice.

Features ***

Included on this DVD is an always wonderful commentary with Spike Lee, Deleted Scenes, and two well made featurettes; “Number 4”, where Lee and Denzel Washington reflect on the their film collaborations, including this one, and “The Making of Inside Man”.

Summary:

I can certainly say that Inside Man, apart from being another grand slam from Spike Lee, is truly one of the better films 2006 has had to offer. Thrilling, provocative, and filled with great writing,  acting and directing, this is one heist you will definitely want to be a part of.

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