Director : Spike Lee
Screenplay : Russell Gewirtz
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeline White), Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case), Willem Dafoe (Captain John Darius), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell), Carlos Andrés Gómez (Steve), Kim Director (Stevie), James Ransone (Steve-O), Bernie Rachelle (Chaim), Peter Gerety (Captain Coughlin), Victor Colicchio (Sergeant Collins)
No one who has seen it can forget the sequence in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) when the narrative essentially comes to a screeching halt and various characters in the film begin suddenly and violently addressing the camera directly and bombarding it (and us) with a string of racial and ethnic epithets and insults. It was a daring, self-conscious, and unmistakably powerful bit of filmmaking in a compelling and unforgettable film, and while there is nothing of its magnitude in Lee’s latest and most mainstream Hollywood film-to-date, the bank heist thriller Inside Man, there are enough similarly unexpected and off-beat touches to keep what otherwise might have been a routine exercise in genre work consistently intriguing.
The film pits Clive Owen as Dalton Russell, a resolutely self-assured robber whose small team has taken over a Wall Street bank, against Denzel Washington (in his sixth collaboration with Lee) as Detective Keith Frazier, an NYPD hostage negotiator working his first significant case. Russell and his team have taken 40 people hostage inside the bank and have sent out a list of demands, including the one that no one ever gets: a jet fueled and ready at the airport. Frazier plays along, but suspects that there is something else going on. The robbers are demanding things that maybe they don’t really want. So, the question becomes, what do they want?
That is the mystery that drives much of the film, especially once other sources of potential suspense are eliminated by flashforwards that make it clear that Russell survives the heist (although it appears that he is in prison), as do all of the hostages. Instead, first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz inserts other peripheral characters who complicate the situation. From the outset we know that the robbery-in-progress is of great concern to Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the billionaire owner of the bank who is deeply worried about something personal contained in of its lockboxes. He brings in Madeline White (Jodie Foster), who has no proper job title but might best be described as a high-power problem solver. She is the kind of person who can barge in on the mayor of New York without an appointment, demand a favor, and get it.
The mechanics of the plot are good--much better than the typical heist film, especially Russell’s satisfyingly brilliant ploy to escape--even if the film as a whole isn’t quite as tight as you might hope. The main goal of the robbers is to stall the police amassed outside while they do their work inside and conceal their primary agenda, and at times you get the feeling that Lee is doing the same thing, dragging the film out longer than it needs to be.
However, within that time he does some of his better work, inserting small bits of character and social commentary into what might otherwise be a routine procedural. Lee’s best films (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X) deal explicitly with racial issues, but here he smoothly and unobtrusively inserts bits of racial commentary, such as the sequence where a hostage who happens to be a Sikh is released and the cops automatically and mistakenly assume that not only he is an Arab, but a terrorist, or the scene in which an officer’s casual use of racial slurs leads to Frazier discovering that he’s been had by the robbers. There is a particularly good scene in which Dalton is clearly disturbed by a young African-American boy’s ultra-violent gangsta PSP video game, which would seem to be an odd irony given Dalton’s violent take-over of the bank, but is actually both a comment on the role of such games in the development of black male identity and a subtle hint at Dalton’s true motives. Such scenes, rather than being awkward or forced, add an indelible touch of recognizable social tension to an otherwise solid genre effort.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2006 Universal Pictures