Inside Man: Spike Lee’s Crime Drama Starring Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster

A return to form, Spike Lee’s new crime drama, Inside Man, is one of the two or three best films he has made in his twenty-year career, along with Do the Right Thing and He Got Game.

At once celebrating, deconstructing, and surpassing the heist films and police corruption movies of the 1970s, Lee has joined forces with producer Brian Grazer to craft a pressure-cooker thriller. Having made many social commentary films, such as Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Lee is reenergized by the opportunity to helm a genre picture that unfolds like an interlocking puzzle in which no piece is what it seems to be. As written by Russell Gewirtz, the film benefits from a multi-layered, plot-driven screenplay, in which no detail is unimportant and no clue is a throwaway.

This is Lee’s fourth teaming with Denzel Washington, following Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, and He Got Game, a track record that speaks for itself. Washington plays Keith Frazier, a newly promoted detective, who must rise above a corruption scandal. Clive Owen is Dalton Russell, a brilliant criminal who upends what we think we know about a bank robbery. Jodie Foster is cast as Madeline White, a mysterious Manhattan power broker who gets accomplished exactly what her clients pay top dollar for.

In Inside Man, Washington, Owen, and Foster explore the lure of power, the ugliness of greed, and the mystery of a perfect robbery that leaves no traces. In this skillfully written and tightly directed thriller, the powerhouse actors play tough New Yorkers, who must outwit one another in order to protect competing interests. The key players collide in a potboiler that teases the audience with tricks of camera and twists of plot up to the very end.

Gewirtz has crafted a fresh and intriguing take on the genre of the bank robbery heist that surpasses in narrative complexity, multi-layered characterization, and both political and moral ambiguity the best samplers of the genre, including Sidney Lumet’s 1974 masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, to which it alludes directly.

The film is framed by Russell’s voice-over narration, which begins and ends the story. Addressing the viewers directly, Russell encourages them “to pay strict attention to what I say, because I choose my words carefully, and I never repeat myself.” His dictum holds true as we chase the various players across darkened rooms and corridors of power to see who will be scammed by whom, and who will wind up on top.

It starts out simply enough, when four people dressed in painters’ outfits march into the bust lobby of Manhattan Trust Bank, a cornerstone Wall Street branch of a worldwide financial institution. Within seconds, the costumed robbers place the bank under a surgically planned siege, and the 50 or so patrons and staff become unwitting pawns in an air-light heist.

The first reel is familiar from heist movies, though, just when you say to yourself, this is a remake or variation of Dog Day Afternoon, with Owen playing the Pacino part, the movie shifts direction and tone and you realize you’re in a totally different milieu.

NYPD hostage negotiators, Detectives Keith Frazier (Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, recently seen in Dirty Pretty Things) are dispatched to the scene with orders to establish contact with the ringleader Russell and ensure safe release of the hostages. Working with Emergency Services Unit (ESU) Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe), the team is hopeful that the situation can be peacefully diffused and that control of the bank and release of those inside can be secured in short order.

To say that things don’t progress as planned is an understatement. Russell proves an unexpectedly canny opponent, clever, calm, and in total command. He’s a puppet master (in more senses than one), with a meticulous plan to disorient and confuse not only the hostages but also the authorities.

Meanwhile, outside, the crowd of New Yorkers grows as the situation becomes increasingly tense. Frazier’s superiors become more concerned about his ability to keep the standoff from spiraling out of control”which in due time, it does. The robbers appear to consistently be one step ahead of the police, outwitting Frazier and Mitchell at every turn.

Unfortunately, Frazier’s suspicions that more is at work than anyone perceives turns out to be justified with the entrance of another power player, Madeline White (Foster), a suave, elegant woman with seemingly shadowy objectives who requests and gets a private meeting with Russell. She’s being paid for her services by Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), an entrepreneurial businessman and chair of the bank’s board of directors, who’s uniquely interested in the moment-to-moment happenings inside the branch.

Midway, two questions emerge. First, what are the robbers really after Certainly not just money. And second, why, despite so many experts involved, no plan or scheme has worked to alleviate the standoff, which stretches on hour after hour

Frazier is convinced that invisible strings are being pulled and secret negotiations are taking place as the powder-keg situation grows less stable and more dangerous by the second. With loyalties and motives called into question, the detective engages in a risky cat-and-mouse with each of the players, in addition to his supervisors. Constant changes in the rules of the game mean that one wrong move may take the volatile match closer to a disastrous, and possibly deadly, conclusion.

The film’s only weak subplot involves Frazier’s girlfriend who periodically calls, expecting a quiet, relaxing and romantic evening. It’s a letdown but a minor problem.

The original script takes the model of the heist film in new directions. There is, of course, the expected red herring”not knowing why things were happening”but in this picture, most enigmas are resolved and disclosed in truly surprising ways, and the twisty ending is particularly satisfying.

Through the main protagonists and bank hostages, Lee presents a multi-racial panoramic view of New York at present. The whole movie vibrates with dynamic energy, not seen in Lee’s work in a long time. Using flashbacks and flash forwards in imaginative way, Inside Man is a great cinematic puzzle worth paying rapt attention to.

The movie could not have had a more stellar cast, and Lee’s two-camera shooting approach results in fresher performances from the entire ensemble. While Washington is superb in navigating tricky moves, arguably, the toughest role is played by Owen since we can’t see his completely masked face. To give the actors more “face” time and to allow the audience a closer look into the robber’s head, Lee has found places where Owen’s character could be filmed unmasked.

Jodie Foster brings her customary artistry, class and intelligence to her role. As always, Christopher Plummer shines in one of the film’s most ambiguous parts, that of a powerful business mogul and philanthropist, who hires Foster to navigate a potentially career-ending–and life-ending–situation (that can’t be revealed here).

Production values of this extremely exciting film are great, courtesy of director of cinematography Matthew Libatique (who also shot Tigerland and Requiem for a Dream) and production designer Wynn Thomas (most recently represented in Cinderella Man). In this picture, Lee uses some of his vet collaborators, such as editor Barry Alexander Brown (who cut Do the Right Thing), and composer Terence Blanchard (who scored Malcom X) to good effect.

Due to limitations of space, most of us critics seldom acknowledge the creative contribution of producers, here represented by Daniel M. Rosenberg (Novocaine), Jon Kilik (Lee’s 25th Hour), Kehela Sherwood (Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind), and Kim Roth (Chris Nolan’s Insomnia)

Like David Cronenberg and History of Violence, Lee has taken the classic genre of the perfect crime-and the bank robbery and injected to it not only new elements but also his personal vision, again proving that genre cinema still contains possibilities for creativity and innovation. Inside Man is about city politics, real estate, power struggles, urban corruption and decadence, negotiations and paybacks, and above all, about what could be described as “a new mentality of crime.”

The grandest compliment I can pay Inside Man is to say that the master of suspense Hitchcock and the prince of New York City policiers Sidney Lumet would be proud of his work.