Thursday, April 06, 2006

Movie Review: Inside Man

Just to refresh your memory, I write these for the company newsletter I edit as part of my job duties. I'm posting them here now as well.

As I settled in for “Inside Man,” the Spike Lee-directed crime thriller starring everyman hero Denzel Washington, I figured this film would be the most recent link in a chain of watchable but increasingly similar Denzel vehicles. You know the kind I’m talking about—The Manchurian Candidate, Man On Fire, John Q, and so forth. The kind of movies for which the ads depict a regular Joe, maybe a little downtrodden by life, playing with the kids, canoodling with the wife, and working some really cool job, until something goes horribly wrong, and the regular Joe rises to the occasion. Good for a couple hours of solid, somewhat soapboxy, but largely entertaining, er, entertainment.

But to my surprise, Inside Man, which opened March 24, was not one of those movies. First, because it wasn't All About Denzel. And second, because it proved to be a more substantial movie, and was actually one of the more suspenseful films I’ve seen in a while.

Washington stars as Keith Frazier, a down-on-his-luck New York City detective who springs into action when word arrives at the precinct that some serious stuff is going down at The Big Bank On Wall Street. The Sarge would have sent his best detective, but he called in sick or something. This is Everyman’s big chance! On the other side, the serious stuff is being perpetrated by a no-nonsense band of thieves led by Dalton Russell, a more-than-worthy foil played by Clive Owen. Between Owen and Washington, “Inside Man” has enough charisma and sex appeal to destroy a small village and everything in it. So be afraid of that.

As the minutely planned heist unfolds (think of a more intricate version of the bank robbery in “Heat,” one of the greatest heist scenes of all time, by the way) and the cops-and-robbers conflict develops in earnest, the narrative turns deftly to Jodie Foster, playing a purring blonde, all-white-clad, soulless, Ivy League, polite-in-conversation-but-she’ll-tear-your-throat-out-if-it-helps-her-bottom-line go-getter named Madeline White. I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but I think I detect a hint of symbolism here.

Even though the exact nature of White’s vocation is left noticeably unarticulated, her job is clear enough: She helps powerful people get, by any means necessary, what they want. For a heavy price, of course. The fact that Madeline White is entering the fray tips us off that This Is No Ordinary Bank Robbery.

And with the cast of characters set, the intrigue deepens. And deepens. And deepens. And no one seems overly eager to provide any insight. That’s one problem with the movie—the storytelling's a little clumsy. There are only so many questions one can ask before one has to provide at least a couple of answers. In other words, there’s no slow unraveling to this plot. They confuse the heck out of you and then dump the resolution on you like they're dropping off old clothes at Goodwill. It seemed in retrospect as if Lee and debut screenwriter Russell Gewirtz set up the ending, then spent the rest of the time finding ways to make things as confusing as possible until the last 30 minutes.

But on the other hand, it’s a pretty darn good 30 minutes. Before they graced me with the ending, I found myself looking at my watch and thinking “there is no way they’re going to satisfactorily resolve this in the next 30 minutes. Either they’re going to fudge, or this is a three-hour movie.”

But that was not the case. Resolve it they did, satisfyingly so, and not without a dose of the social commentary (and I mean that as a compliment) we’ve all come to expect from Washington and Lee. The ending isn’t mind-blowing or life-altering—just thoughtful, interesting, and plain old good.

“Inside Man”—and is that the best we can come up with for a title?—rises well above the everymovie scrap heap through good acting (especially from Owen, who for better or worse I couldn’t stop thinking of as a more smoldering version of John Cusack), an interesting story, a self-aware sense of humor, and Lee’s ever-present spin on race and life in contemporary America. Lee’s style of storytelling is not a perfect fit for the crime/action movie, so if he tried this again it might be a clunker. But “Inside Man” definitely pulls off the job.

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