Inside Man

Inside Man

*****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Alone in a cell, a man (Clive Owen) stares defiantly into the camera, and declares: "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay close attention to what I say because I pick my words carefully, and I never repeat myself."

He has, he goes on, recently planned the perfect robbery. Who he is, where he did it, and why, are all, he says, questions easily answered; the real "rub", though, is working out how.

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This is how Spike Lee's Inside Man opens and as the robbery unfolds in a dizzying sequence of flashbacks, intercut with scenes of the police interrogating dozens of witnesses in a clueless attempt to pin down the guilty party, it becomes clear that Russell's claim on our attention will be rewarded with one of the tricksiest, most tautly plotted rollercoaster rides through the thriller genre since The Usual Suspects (1995).

Early one morning, four people dressed as painters walk into the Manhattan Trust Bank and, within moments, take everyone inside hostage at gunpoint. Despite being under investigation for some missing drug money, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is assigned, along with his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to negotiate a swift and peaceful end to the siege. However, the robbers' leader (Owen) seems in no hurry to talk, and when he does, either makes patently impossible demands or sends the police on wild goose chases. As Frazier tries to work out what his calm interlocutor really wants, the bank's owner and elderly philanthropist Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) hires corporate fixer Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to apply her "special skills and extreme discretion" to ensuring that the contents of a safety deposit box in the bank's vault remain hidden at any cost.

It would be criminal to reveal anything more about the story of the Inside Man, as there are twists aplenty, some readily guessed, some devilishly disguised, but all appearing in a complicated ethical frame that enables them to transcend their mere surprise value and to become something altogether more involving.

The biggest trick here is in the screenplay, so dense in theme and flawless in its construction that it is hard to believe it is Russell Gewirtz's first. The script, much like the elaborate scheme that it portrays, is meticulously plotted, impenetrably watertight and filled with all manner of entertaining distractions and diversions.

At the same time, hidden away within the convoluted structure of this thriller is a bleak morality tale about power, corruption and conscience, in which the fall of one man is subtly paralleled to the rise of another in such a way that it becomes impossible to say which is good and which is evil or to avoid the impact of the ending's cynical double-edge, exposing as it does the sin inside every man.

Although they have little else in common, Spike Lee is, like Woody Allen, a self-appointed celluloid chronicler of New York City, and here he uses the metropolis' status as an ethnic melting pot to heat up the tensions in the pressure-cooker plot. For while it may at first seem strange for Lee to be directing such a conventional thriller, his usual concerns with the clash of race, class and culture are never far beneath the surface, in what is to my mind his best 'joint' since Do the Right Thing (1989).

Negotiating a path between Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), between Kevin Spacey's Albino Alligator (1996) and F. Gary Gray's The Negotiator (1998), Lee keeps the film moving at a breathless pace, while drawing first-rate performances from an ensemble cast playing the sort of diverse characters who could only ever come together in a film set in the Big Apple.

Inside Man may in the end be a genre piece, but at the same time it is the apotheosis of its genre, honing the heist siege flick to the perfection of a diamond. See it, and be dazzled.

Reviewed on: 24 Mar 2006
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Spike Lee takes on the heist genre.
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Anton Bitel *****

Director: Spike Lee

Writer: Russell Gewirtz

Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Doug Aguirre, Waris Ahluwalia, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe, Daryl Mitchell, Christopher Plummer, Ashlie Atkinson, Robert Bizik

Year: 2006

Runtime: 129 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: USA

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