Tuesday, April 17, 2012

From My Collection: Inside Man Movie Review

I’m kind of a shameless sucker for heist movies. I love the team camaraderie and the way the films are usually structured, often beginning with an opening heist teaser, followed by a gathering of the team members, the training and planning stages and finally the execution. Spike Lee’s Inside Man turns a lot of the conventions of the genre on its head by beginning with the heist and allowing it to unfold with the audience in the position of the hostages and the police. We don’t know what the plan is, what they want to steal, or how they plan to make their escape. Hell, we don’t even know who is involved. It all gets pieced together slowly over time as the main detective slowly catches on, at which point it’s too late.

The leader, or the mastermind, of the robbery is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), who opens the film narrating from a cell. He claims to tell us the What, the Why, and the Who of the case, but this is a bit of smoke and mirrors: a typical magician’s trick known as misdirection. You think he’s given you all you need to know to follow along, but in reality he’s told us next to nothing. The detective is Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). He’s no slouch, but Russell is certainly smarter than he is, and they both know it.

Russell and his crew come in dressed as painters and hold everyone, customers and employees alike, hostage. They dress everyone in identical coveralls with hoods and face masks. Then the police set up their usual perimeter and start strategizing. The coordination is led by Frazier and his partner, Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), along with Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe). The screenplay by Russell Gewirtz, whose only other film credit is the abysmal Righteous Kill two years later, cleverly plays with structure a little by flashing forward to Frazier’s and Mitchell’s interviews with several of the bank’s hostages. Eventually we come to realize that the detectives have no clue who the bank robbers are and by that point you should understand why they made everyone dress the same.

Christopher Plummer plays Arthur Case, the owner of the bank, who is so spooked by someone robbing this particular branch of his bank that he calls in Madeleine White (Jodie Foster).White is one of those people who has become well-known and in high demand among the wealthy and powerful by being discreet with secrets and able to scrounge around for big favors. She can apparently finagle just about anything, including a foray inside the bank to speak to Russell about protecting something of great importance to case. What you need to understand about White is that she is completely unscrupulous, but that’s how she rose to her position. She has no morals about what she does. Note that when she presses Case for information on what he wants protected in his safety deposit box she merely tells him she’d be disappointed if it contained nuclear launch codes if he previously told her it was something more benign. She doesn’t really care what it is – she just doesn’t want to be lied to.

Gewirtz draws a lot of inspiration from Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, another great New York bank robbery film. It’s also clear that most of the characters, especially Russell, are familiar with the classic. He asks for a fully fueled jet waiting for him at the airport and they get pizzas delivered for everyone in the bank when the hostages get hungry. Like Lumet before him, Spike Lee is great at capturing the heart of New York. His films set in The City have an intimate understanding of its people and relationships. Inside Man isn’t just about a bank robbery. That’s the core, the plot, the engine that drives the story. But it’s fleshed out and made whole by the minor characters on the fringes.

Lee takes the time to focus on different ethnic, immigrant and religious groups and throws in moments that examine how we relate to one another. When a hostage wearing a turban is sent out with a metal box strapped to his neck, everyone panics that he’s an Arab with a bomb. This doesn’t strike me in the least as a moment that is overplayed. I have no trouble imagining that in a situation like this, facing a man who is a Sikh (not an Arab) the police would tackle him to the ground and mistreat him under the ignorant and false assumption that any dark-skinned man wearing a turban is an Arab.

Notice how the film has the pervading theme that every non-white character is not to be completely trusted. It’s not only the Sikh man who is victimized. Frazier himself is the target of an investigation regarding a large sum of missing money. He is assigned to the case only because the regular guy isn’t available. The people in power positions in Inside Man are exclusively white: Arthur Case; Frazier’s immediate supervisor; the bank manager; the Mayor. Even Russell is in a position of power above Frazier as the man who controls the situation. Madeleine White is the person in the end who can make Frazier’s problems disappear. Frazier is a pawn, a soldier in a world full of people who control his fate. He even feels like he has no control over his future with his girlfriend because he doesn’t earn enough money to buy her a “proper” ring.

It turns out Arthur Case’s secret is a doozy and one you can probably guess at if you calculate his age and use some critical thinking skills. It’s a bad enough secret that it gets us standing squarely behind Russell and hoping for his success. We empathize with both Russell and Frazier. We want them both to come out winners in the end, although in a cops and robbers game that usually doesn’t happen. Case’s history forces us to ask about the nature of right versus wrong. Can crimes committed long in the past and under very different circumstances still be held against us even if we’ve done years of penance? Lee and Gewirtz seem to have a little bit of ambivalence as to whether or not Case should be held accountable for his past actions and that’s one minor quibble I have with the film.

This is easily Spike Lee’s most conventional film. No wonder it was also his most successful. But what he brings to the direction in the way of characterization elevates Inside Man well above you standard boiler plate heist film. A couple of years ago there was talk of a possible sequel, which seems to have fallen through. That’s something we should be grateful for because this film wraps up the characters perfectly. There are no loose ends and there’s not really anywhere else for them to go. A sequel would just be blatant cashing in on past success. You’re better than that Mr. Lee.

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