INSIDE MAN has gotta be Spike Lee’s most mainstream joint ever. It’s a gimmicky bank robber thriller, not the type of story and characters he as a jointmaker is known for. You can go down his entire jointography and he’s never done this type of movie – it’s not as gritty and realistic as CLOCKERS, it’s not as meandering and novelistic as THE 25TH HOUR or SUMMER OF SAM, it’s not something he seems to be as passionate about as say MALCOLM X or the Jackie Robinson movie he’s been talking about doing for about 500 years that now is gonna be a Robert Redford Joint. (Yeah right Robert Redford, you had no idea Spike Lee wanted to do a Jackie Robinson movie. Who would’ve ever known Spike was interested in that sort of thing?)
So it’s not pure 100% grade A Spike Lee Joint which accounts for its lack of greatness, but I think it’s also kind of a good thing for Spike. He’s never made a movie completely lacking in merit (well, I haven’t seen SHE HATE ME yet) but he seems to get less and less focused as he gets older. Maybe doing one mainstream thriller will get him back in the mode of telling a somewhat concise story. I don’t know.
It’s one of them casts that Entertainment Weekly or somebody would call “high wattage”: Clive Owen is the leader of the bank robbers who storm in in painter’s outfits and take everybody hostage, Denzel (no last name required) is the lead detective, Willem Dafoe is the tactical cop dude that detective Denzel mildly clashes with, and Jodi “this and Flight Plan will probaly be the only times you see me in the next five years” Foster comes out of her bunker for a supporting role as a scary corporate somebody or other who does some sleazy, non-official negotiating between the robbers and the owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer).
Even the style of the movie is kind of watered down by Spike standards. You don’t get the in your face colors of a DO THE RIGHT THING or the crisp, vivid photography of a HE GOT GAME. And he doesn’t even go for his more realistic style. If you look at CLOCKERS and GET ON THE BUS today you can see that Spike was an early adopter of the handheld/changing film stocks/documentaryish/reality style that pretty much everybody does now. INSIDE MAN is not that, it looks more like your usual New York drama that has existed since the ’70s.
But don’t get me wrong, it’s got Spike Lee moments peppered all around. There’s at least 2 or 3 trademark Spike Lee shots, including a moment where instead of showing Denzel running toward the bank they have him attached to some kind of machine so that he appears to fly toward the bank. I don’t know why Spike Lee is so into that gimmick, but I love him for it.
Ken Leung, who was one of the main characters in Spike’s cable-pilot-turned-DTV-joint SUCKER FREE CITY, has a small role in this one. There’s also a shot most people won’t be able to decipher where a guy is asleep holding what appears to be some kind of rocket. If you’ve seen SUCKER FREE CITY though you know it’s The Bomb, a popular malt liquor that comes in a bottle shaped like an atom bomb. I think Spike is getting better at satirizing pop culture than he was a few years ago when he did BAMBOOZLED. Somehow in this one he manages to work in a great jab at Grand Theft Auto type video games.
Later there’s a scene where some hostages have been released and instead of feeling safe they’re then cuffed and manhandled by the cops who need to interview them, and they’re thrown on a bus just like they would’ve been if the thieves had gotten the bus to the airport they demanded. You don’t see that in your usual hostage drama and I thought, “a ha, this is a Spike Lee joint.”
There’s one regrettable part where for some reason they have to make a joke about a rabbi being an expert in diamonds. Get it, because jews know about diamonds. If you see the movie you’ll see why it’s even more out of place than it sounds. In other ways though the movie makes attempts to reach out to other cultures. There’s a character who’s a Sikh who’s very pissed off about being lumped in with Arabs and about getting his turban pulled off by cops. Unfortunately not everybody in the audience is ready to accept this message. A gal in front of me laughed hysterically, I think she even thought it was supposed to be funny.
(Note: NEVER go to an opening night show of a Denzel Washington/Jodi Foster movie. When you think about people talking at movies maybe you think of obnoxious young people, but in my experience the worst are always us so-called grownups. A movie with a cast like this attracts all the retards that go to movies once every five years. The people who have to ask out loud “What is he doing?” and “Why is he doing that?” and “Wh-uuuut?” and “What did he say?” instead of, you know, watching the god damn movie and finding out what will happen like everybody else.)
For the record, this movie has the all time greatest use of a photograph of George and Barbara Bush in the background of a shot. I invite anybody to try to top it, but this one is good. There are alot of good little moments. Maybe my favorite scene isn’t important to the plot at all. It’s where Clive Owen has a friendly (and not even threateningly friendly, I don’t think) conversation with the video game playing 12 year old Brooklyn kid who is the youngest hostage. They eat pizza together sitting in the vault, using blocks of money as stools. That’s the biggest hint that the robbery is something other than what it appears. If the trailer didn’t tip you off. Or the fact that this is a movie.
See, although it has alot of nice touches of realism and insight, ultimately this is not the real world. This is Hollywood New York, where people can stage elaborate and fanciful robberies if they’ve got enough gimmicks and plot twists and surprise motivations in their arsenal. It doesn’t feel like a CLOCKERS type deal where it’s heavily researched and presents a different version of police work than what you’ve seen in other movies. It feels more like a standard Hollywood thriller with that sort of thing glazed over the top.
So the success of the movie comes down to the exact thing those talking knuckleheads above probaly came to the movie for – the High Wattage Cast, especially Clive and Denzel.
I never noticed Clive until SIN CITY but between that and CROUPIER I think we all know he knows what he’s doing. This character is lightly sketched but he adds alot to it with that deep narrator voice (handy for some Spike-Lee-talking-right-to-the-camera scenes as well as making his demands to negotiators) and although he’s a serious villain I think he also gives an indication of being actually a pretty nice guy when not taking innocent people hostage.
And then there’s Denzel. I don’t know what to say about him that you don’t already know. Obviously he’s gonna be intense and intelligent, self righteous at times, funny and charming at other times. He tones down the intensity a little from TRAINING DAY mode but is still playing a typical Denzel character. This is one of his characters who wears nice suits and hats. You know the type. What makes it stand out though is this time he’s teamed with Chiwetel Ejiofor, the bad guy from SERENITY. They’re well matched partners with complete respect for each other, they have a rapport where they joke and make each other laugh like real friends, not like wacky partners in a movie. They’re always on the same page, they never get in dramatic arguments or shit like that. There’s nothing revolutionary about their characters but the chemistry of the two of them together is so good I’d almost like to see their characters return in another movie with a completely different case.
But the best thing about the movie: coughing. I’ve been looking for this, I’ve been demanding this since my FINDING NEVERLAND review. I want a movie where a character coughs and it doesn’t mean that he or she is gonna die. INSIDE MAN is that movie. There’s at least two scenes where Denzel stops to cough between lines, and it has no plot purpose. It’s just him coughing. As people sometimes do.
the end (cough)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.