Director: Spike Lee
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 129 min.
*** (out of ****)
Spike Lee's Inside Man is a good thriller that could have been great if not for a big surprise that doesn't deliver and an overlong ending in which the movie congratulates itself for a briliant heist. Actually, considering the talent involved, this should have been much, much better. The movie does, however, feature commanding performances from Washington and Owen plus one neat trick never used (at least as far as I've seen) in a heist caper that ends up being the movie's saving grace.
Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, who has concocted a master plan for robbing Case Bank in Manhattan. He's gathered a group of four masked men dressed as painters and they'll lock down the bank, taking hostages. The big catch is once the they're in, they'll dress all the hostages just like them so the authorities don't have a chance of ever capturing them. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is in charge of the hostage negotiations and we are intermittedly shown clips throughout the movie of him and his partner Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interrogating all the hostages in the bank when it's over, attempting to discover which of them were part of the master plot. This would be fantastic, except for the fact they make it very clear early who those people are, draining the film of suspense.
Meanwhile, the founder of Case Bank (Christopher Plummer in basically the same villianous role he plays in every movie) has very important interests laying in a safe deposit box inside that must to be protected. In other words, he's hiding a "huge secret." To protect it he calls in Madeliene White (Jodie Foster, great as ever) as his personal fixer. Of course she clashes with Frazier. I'll give you a wild guess if Frazier is eventually taken off the case. If not for the jarring, nauseating camera work you would never know this is a Spike Lee movie. No serious social commentary or big issues here, which I think is a relief for a change.
Lee seems to be aiming to make his own Dog Day Afternoon (that movie's even blatantly mentioned in the film), but this doesn't come anywhere close to reaching those heights. Part of the problem is that the hostages act like complete morons disobeying their crooks left and right so it's hard to feel much sympathy for any of them. Then there's the mystery of the safe deposit box and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz really traps himself in a hole with this one. With all the hype, what's ever inside better live up to it. Needless to say, it doesn't. I think it would have been wiser to not reveal the contents at all, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
As for the ending, there was a perfect point to close, but Lee continues on needlessly, making sure we understand every detail of the plan even though it's plainly obvious. He's also hell bent on making sure we know Detective Frazier "knows what's going on" and he's "going to do what's right." Thanks. I got it. The movie also spends a ridiculous amount of time in the final minutes exploring the possible consequences of Plumer's character's secret being exposed, which was far more interesting to the filmakers than me.
You may be wonder why I'm even recommending this movie and giving it three stars. Well, for one, Washington is excellent as usual when given a role where he's in charge and this is no exception. Clive Owen proves he has the suave charm to alternate between playing the heavy and the hero in any given film. Making his performance here all the more impressive is that he's forced to mumble through a mask the entire movie, yet he somehow still gives us a clear picture of his motivations. Not to mention he's also scary as hell in the hostage scenes. How this movie uses the hostages and makes them suspects is ingenious and all the ingredients were set in place for Inside Man to be a great crime caper. It's too bad the film runs out of gas before it can reach the finish line.