It has been a fair bit of time since director Spike Lee has directed a well written, respectable, interesting movie, and almost just as long since there has been a good bank heist movie. So, I found myself particularly eager to see Inside Man, a slick, smart and entertaining film that combines a great cast to go along with a fairly formulaic plot. Starring Denzel Washington, Willem Dafoe, Jodie Foster, and the delicious Clive Owen, Inside Man is a welcomed refreshment to the latest Hollywood fodder out there.
The film opens with a monologue from the robbery mastermind, who introduces himself as Dalton Russell (Owen). He tells us that he's pulling off the robbery not for money, but because he can. He also tells us to be attentive -- which the viewer will need to do, as these guys are out to commit the perfect crime, and they have formulated it perfectly. The film reveals clues as it progresses, but doesn't give itself way until the time is right.
The story begins in an ornately decorated and prominent Wall Street bank that possesses an awesome and intricate design that portends the intricate design of the plot. (It is also a lamentable reminder of an era of grandiose design gone by.) The robbers, cleverly disguised as a painting crew, enter the bank and within a couple of minutes have taken over the depository. Of course, keeping with the genre, the cops show up and learn that there is a hostage situation, and then the scene cuts to the film's protagonist.....
....An embattled cop, Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who is on the phone with his girlfriend and begins to debate with his partner Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor: Dirty Pretty Things, Four Brothers) whether or not he should propose to her. However, his troubles aren't just his fear of love and devotion. Frazier is under suspicion regarding a large sum of money that was stolen from a suspect of a high profile case. Frazier's supervisor, who appears to believe that Frazier is not a bad cop, sends him out to the scene. There he meets Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe), who had worked on a hostage case with Frazier (that went bad), and the captain holds that solecism over his head like a Damoclean sword.
Meanwhile, a composed and poised woman, Madeline White (Foster) is hearing the case of a relative of a prominent world figure who needs her connections to help him. We soon gather that White is extremely well connected to the power brokers of New York City, including the Mayor - whose office she can just walk into, unannounced. She is summoned by the seized bank's president, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who seems inordinately disturbed by the heist of this particular bank branch. However, his concern is not with the hostages, or even the money, but something in the bank that is more personal to him --- something that could destroy him. White is a renowned and effectual negotiator whose talents are much sought after. Sadly, we never get to know how she knows who and what she knows, or what things she's done in the past to make her the go-to-girl in times of crisis and need. The viewer gets no joy in finding out more about her. She remains a mystery, and somehow that adds to her character. Come to think of it, we really don't get much back story of any of the characters, or how the robbers came to be aware of their true target.
Now, at first glance, one would think that this is going to be a repeat of Dog Day Afternoon or The Siege also starring Washington, who opposite Annette Benning played a game of tug of war in a terroism plot against New York, that eerily foreshadowed 9/11. However, that is not the case here. Foster's appearance is sparingly used, and she is more of a secondary character, but her appearances at critical instances in the film, give her more of an impact than if she were at Washington's side for the film's entire run. More importantly, the Hollywood pitfall of having two A-list stars competing not only in the story, but for screen time and the marquis, is avoided.
The robber's plan and execution are brilliantly deceptive to the police and the viewer, despite the viewers' abilities to watch both sides, but the viewers still find themselves deceived at certain points. Your initial assumption of what the raiders are after or why they chose this bank, will be wrong, but the object of the heist is the exact thing that Case doesn't want revealed. Frazier, Darius, and the police are in the dark about what is going on and everytime they feel they are closer to robbers, they discover they have once again been duped. No matter what the good guys do, the bad guys are always one step ahead. The robbers are extremely creative in their planning and execution. Some of their tactics are standard, and a few are rather novel.
The major conflict lay between Frazier and Russell. The two parlay the demands and the motives -- of course, the NYPD is trying to inflitrate the bank to save the hostages and catch the robbers. Secondary conflicts exist between Darius, who wants to swoop down on the bank, and White, who effortlessly manipulates and intimidates to fulfill her mission.
The movies cuts back and forth between the current situation and hostages/witnesses/suspects describing their experiences in the bank. The viewer is unsure of what point these characters are being interrogated and this keeps things interesting and a bit confusing.
There are a few dings in the movie though: The plot of this movie is not orignal by any sense. As with most hostage/heist capers, there are the good guys, the bad guys, and the other entity, who are usually sent to "observe" or "assist" by a higher-level authority. Clive Owen's ambiguous accent is a slight distraction, although it's clearly not American....he just sucks at any accent other than his native one. Frazier's partner (Ejiofor) is pretty much useless and was relatively regulated to the role of cursory side-kick.
At times the movie gets slow, but keeps a good pace overall. Despite the few minor flubs that I cited above, it's a satisfying story and worth a look. Inside Man is a fairly exciting movie, and very enjoyable for those who want a solid and durable story that will keep you guessing.
Czarina's Caustic Comment or Captious Compliment: This film will get inside of your head -- for some people the movie will have plenty of room.
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