VOD film review: Inside Man
James R | On 23, Feb 2019
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster
Sometimes, you can’t beat a good old bank heist. The planning, the execution, the misdirection, the reveal, there’s nothing like seeing it all unfold in slick, surprising style. But nothing was more surprising in 2006 than the man who was behind cinema’s latest bank heist: none other than Spike Lee.
20 years on from his black-and-white indie debut, She’s Gotta Have It, Inside Man saw Spike go mainstream with a big-budget, star-studded thriller. The idea of a commercial blockbuster from the pioneering, political director might seem unlikely, but it proves a smart, effective fit, as he confidently serves up genre thrills, but with a pointed sting in the tail.
The film sees a Manhattan bank taken over by a band of robbers, led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). Enter Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Detective Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who are assigned to diffuse the ensuing hostage situation and bring the right people to justice. But Russell is no ordinary bank thief, and what follows is a game of wits and poker-faced patience, not least because we can’t even see Dalton’s face – one of the first things he does is get everyone to strip and don painter’s masks and overalls, so nobody can tell the difference between the culprits and the civilians. And so Lee cuts between the stand-off inside and outside of the bank and our police duo after the fact, as they interview each person in the building to sort the innocent from the guilty.
While all this goes on, waters are muddied by the arrival of Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a fixer who’s hired by the owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer) to make sure things run smoothly, and are wrapped up as neatly as possible. The cast are all marvellous, with Foster bringing a ruthless grin to her shark-like playmaker and Owen chillingly cool and in control, his steely gaze rarely blinking. But it’s Denzel and Chiwetel who are the stars of the show, and watching them click together as they puzzle through the situation, and grill possible suspects, is an absolute joy. Both bring not only humour but depth to what would be stock types in another movie, and Lee doesn’t lose the dark irony that these outsiders in the police department are the only two left still trying to catch the criminals by the time the long-running stalemate has drawn to a chaotic close.
Their interactions with members of the public remind us of Lee’s knack for drawing the social dynamics of modern America, and race, class and authority all intersect in ways that are funny, nuanced and occasionally uncomfortable – even in the briefest of moments when another cop (Willem Dafoe) and Frazier interact, the unspoken tensions bristle with understated realism, while one cutaway involving a video game makes a brief but important point. That social awareness, aptly, is the building block for screenwriter Russell Gewirtz’s quietly subversive premise: that in New York, a city of corruption and trickle-down crime, the people doing the stealing aren’t necessarily the bad guys. It’s a notion that Plummer leans into with a sinister air, and one that adds bite to Russell’s penchant for speechmaking, whether to us or the police listening on the radio.
The result is gripping and tense, as glimpsed flash-forwards, both true and hypothetical, tease how things might play out. Lee and DoP Matthew Libatique frame it all with a sleek, clinical momentum that whisks us through this rollercoaster of injustice. A Spike Lee blockbuster joint? The only thing more surprising than him pulling off the job is that he does so in a way that’s genuinely novel. Sometimes, you can’t beat a good old bank heist. Other times, you don’t even need a heist to begin with.