Monday, April 03, 2006

The "Inside Man" of New York: Spike Lee plays it cool


directed by Spike Lee
starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Love him or hate him, Spike Lee demands our full attention, and usually gets it. He’s one of the few high-profile American directors today who can truly be described as incendiary—which is why it’s so intriguing to watch him play it cool in the heist movie of the moment, “Inside Man.” The flame is still there, but it’s on low, and the film feels unusually relaxed for a Spike Lee joint.

As such, “Inside Man” is a refreshing change of pace, even for those of us who like angry Spike, and he’s being suitably rewarded for turning down the heat. The movie’s on track to becoming his most commercially successful so far and by far, and the critics have been largely kind, though not too kind to suggest that Lee is slumming for the sake of the almighty dollar. Such insinuations strike me as pointless: a good genre movie is still a good movie, and one with a director’s distinctive stamp is even better. “Inside Man” delivers on both counts.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know everything you need to know. In a New York minute, a small group of masked men (and one woman) hold up a bank in Manhattan, seal the doors, and take everyone in it hostage. The ringleader, who calls himself Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, struggling slightly with an American accent), communicates demands to the police that sound like the typical demands in a high-stakes hostage situation. Too typical, in fact, for NYPD detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who’s called in to negotiate the situation, and who quickly senses a deeper game. He doesn’t know, however, what Russell is really after, and neither do we, at least initially. Only one person seems to know, and that is the president of the bank himself, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). Realizing that his darkest secret is in jeopardy of being pried from its vault, Case brings in the highest-of-the-high-level damage control. Enter Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a behind-the-scenes power broker with mysterious lines of influence that include having the mayor of New York, among other people, permanently in her back pocket.

I’ll spare any further plot details: like most heist films, this one undoubtedly has as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese—yet like said cheese, it holds together well enough. As far as pure ingenuity and pacing are concerned, “Inside Man” is fair to middling. It begins with snap and builds the tension nicely, but begins to lose momentum at about the two-thirds mark. What keeps you watching is not so much the MacGuffin—the “why” behind the crime—or even the “how” that’s explicitly stressed by Russell in his opening monologue, but rather how the characters behave and interact with one another in response.

A lot of that is owing to the actors, of course. This is a cast to die for, though for the most part it’s somewhat underutilized. I’m disappointed to report that Jodie Foster’s character is essentially superfluous. Still, it’s fun to watch her exude that trademark Jodie Foster steeliness, this time lacquered with an extra layer of frost, as she strides purposefully up and down the corridors of power on killer heels. We’re tipped off to her iciness from the moment we see the exaggeratedly sleek modernist lines of office and her exquisitely tailored power suits, all in varying shades of white or ivory that set off her pale fine-boned features: “white” by art as well as name. Yet it’s a credit to the actress, not her wardrobe assistant, that we feel a genuine chill when she warns Frazier that her bite is much worse than her bark.

Meanwhile, the talented and magnetic Chiwetel Ejiofor (doing better with the accent than Clive Owen) as Frazier’s second and Willem Dafoe as the captain on security detail are around just enough to register their presences, but not much beyond that. This is basically a two-man show, and luckily for the movie the two men are well matched: Denzel has the weight, Clive has the muscle. There’s always been an undercurrent of brutality to the latter that rarely works its way to the surface; it’s what made his performance so devastating in “Closer,” and part of the fun of “Inside Man” is trying to figure out whether it will do so here—that is, whether his bite is worse than his bark. Denzel, for his part, does what he does best: play a smart, square guy who turns out to be smarter and less square than he seems at first.

Apart from the acting, what makes “Inside Man” stand out from the pack is its setting in present-day New Yawk, in all its dirty, sulky, shuffling, head-spinningly multicultural glory. Though carefully packaged as a heist/hostage flick, with a few rather campy nods to film noir, it has a tang that only Spike Lee could have provided. Lee has an acute eye for the diversity that’s a living day-to-day reality, rather than a meaningless p.c. buzzword, in this town and the decidedly un-p.c. responses that are its byproducts. Some of the film’s funniest and most improbable moments are also its most sharply observant: Frazier playing a recording for the crowd and asking if anyone can identify the language (sure enough, someone comes forward); a hot-to-trot Albanian immigrant attempting to negotiate her own side deal with the police; and Frazier’s deadpan retort (possibly the best line in the movie) to the complaints of an angry Sikh that he’s always being pulled aside for “random” post-9/11 searches. In his depiction of New York, Lee has no problems being an equal opportunity offender: casual racism and sexism are amply on display here, presented with bite but less than his usual ire. Again, he’s keeping it cool: not condoning it, just noting its existence as an almost incidental observation.

Every now and again, though, hints of the Spike Lee we love—or love to hate—pop up, as when Russell finds a black kid playing a handheld video game that looks like a version of “Grand Theft Auto” targeted at gangsta-rap fans. The game could be something straight out of the brilliant (and severely underrated) “Bamboozled.” Russell’s response, however, could not. In no other Spike Lee movie would a white man get away with offering a moral comment in this context. But in this movie, it’s a hint. Lee is keeping the lid on, and Dalton Russell is the man who gets away with everything. That’s what makes him, and the movie, so ineffably and attractively cool. The cool may be a fleeting episode in Spike Lee’s career (I rather hope so), but there's no denying it’s enjoyable while it lasts.



Blogger jchensor said...

"...a good genre movie is still a good movie, and one with a director’s distinctive stamp is even better."

I love this comment. It rings so very true and pretty much pinpoints why, for example, I still prefer the original Batman to Batman Begins. It's nice that Nolan did Batman the way Batman should be done but it's better that Burton did Batman the way Burton should do Batman.

It's nice to see a heist movie done with a strong stamp of it's director. I enjoyed Inside Man a lot just 'cause it was Spike Lee's version of a heist movie. Probably the same reason why I enjoyed Ocean's 11, that being Soderbergh's version of a heist movie. Of course, speaking of that, it still can be shown that you CAN take your stamp too far, as evidenced by Ocean's 12. ^_^

- James

4:40 AM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

I liked this movie too.

However, I could have sworn that "Armenian" woman you mentioned was Albanian and that it was her ex-husband who was Armenian.

And was Clive Owen really trying for an American accent? Could have fooled me.;-)

3:00 PM  
Blogger Selim Bag said...

No the armenian one of the guy who has been interrogated by the policemen. This latter one asked : what's the difference between Albania and Armenia.
The answer is: I was born in the Queens, so...

3:45 PM  

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