Sunday, April 02, 2006

Movie Review: "Inside Man"

Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer
Directed by Spike Lee

Having built his career over the past 20 years largely focusing on passion projects, its a bit surprising to see Spike Lee directing what, at first glance, seems to be a straightforward genre picture. And to be certain, "Inside Man" is undoubtedly the most commercial film that Lee has ever made. But thanks to a smart script and strong performances, this crime caper is able to bring a freshness to the proceedings.

Demonstrating a strong focus, Russell Gewirtz, in his first produced screenplay, wastes no time getting to the central focus of the movie, as a Manhattan bank robbery is swiftly executed. Disguised as painters, the four-person gang of thieves, led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), quickly show they've come prepared, as they have all the hostages in the bank strip down and put on identical uniforms to theirs. Demonstrating a calm, yet very serious demeanor, Russell and his gang would seem to have ample time to take money and make their escape. However, their goals extend beyond a simple cash grab.

Before long, the authorities surround the bank and a standoff fraught with danger and risks ensues. This leads to a cat-and-mouse battle of wills between Russell and Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). Frazier, a headstrong and stubborn detective, gets this huge assignment, even as he and partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are in the doghouse for the mysterious disappearance of $140,000 in another case. The moral character of Frazier's character is quickly brought into question, but Washington brings a lot of charm to the role, making him someone for the audience to immediately want to believe and root for.

As if Frazier didn't have enough to deal with, a wild card gets involved in the negotiations, when Madeline Smith (Jodie Foster) shows up. Smith, a mysterious power broker with very high connections, is brought into the situation by the bank's chairman, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who has a very strong and personal desire for something in the bank to remain a secret. Smith doesn't know what the secret is, and seemingly doesn't care, while Frazier doesn't even know the real reason why Smith is involved. "Look detective, there are matters at stake here that are a little bit above your pay grade," Smith calmly informs Frazier.

Although they only share a few scenes together, it's fun to see Washington and Foster (both two-time Oscar winners) square off, as each are arguably the best actors of their generation. Foster has always shown a propensity for playing strong-willed women and while she has limited screen time, she makes the most of what's essentially an underwritten part.

Lee generally keeps the story moving forward, while still allowing for astute character observations, such as a seemingly racist cop making adjustments to a story he tells Frazier. One of the best moments takes place in the bank vault, as Russell observes a particularly gruesomely violent video game that a young boy is playing on his portable game machine. As both sit on giant piles of money, he comments that after the boy is finished eating, he'll have to talk to the boy's father about the game. Little moments like that help distinguish the film from the cliched checklist that many heist movies seem to follow.

While most of the story plays out with a solid sense of realism, the film does misstep some down the stretch, as character motivations and their knowledge are conveniently adjusted to fit in the confines of the script. But the story does generally keep the audience engaged, even if the ends don't ultimately seem to justify the means. Much like its somewhat enigmatic title, "Inside Man" primarily succeeds in throwing some mystery into what is normally a conventional genre.
Grade: B+
(Rated R for language and some violent images.)

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