Inside Man

Year: 2006
Studio: Universal
Director: Spike Lee
Producer: Brian Grazer
Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Spike Lee's one of those directors like Kubrick, Hitchcock or Leone. He has a very distinctive style and such a personal flavour that each project becomes hotly anticipated among eager fans, especially when he straddles genres. Much like Kubrick's horror (The Shining) or Leone's gangland drama (Once Upon a Time in America), a Spike Lee bank heist thriller was bound to arouse excitement among his most dedicated followers.

Carving out his niche and filling it with his political voice in films that commented mostly on race relations (Do the Right Thing), he used his increasing credibility and clout to extend his reach beyond the experience of the modern Afro-American by investigating history (Summer of Sam, Malcolm X) and the impact of a life of crime not just for blacks but society in general (Clockers, 25th Hour).

He's also not afraid to use the medium to speak his language, employing left-of-centre techniques to tell the story. Bamboozled was shot entirely on video, and Lee uses some of the same grab bag of trickery here.

In many ways however, you're better off seeing Inside Man if you aren't a Spike Lee fan, as the material overshadows the personality behind the camera. If anything, it almost feels too big, the bloated plot leaving no room for the distinctive voice. Perhaps Lee chose this multi-stranded heist thriller for that very reason, but the most notable absence is the dramatic mark he usually leaves.

The kernel of the story is the notion that Nazi blood money financed one of America's most prestigious banks, but it isn't something you'll be aware of for much of the film. It starts out depicting a tightly wound bank robbery in typical Hollywood fashion (the iron-clad plan, the charismatic leader), but the robbers don't leave, holing up with their hostages deep into the night making impossible and – as Frazier (Washington) the detective and negotiator called in believes – red-herring demands.

As the small army of police outside find themselves unwittingly dancing to the tune of the band of crooks as they seem to stay one step ahead, shadows move beyond. The statesman-like chairman of the bank (Plummer) only cares about the contents of a safe deposit box inside, one that could destroy him, and he calls in a mysterious fixer (Foster) to secure it, a woman with some very powerful clients who's way into the conflagration is smoothed by no less than the mayor.

The double-edged plotting of the robbery inside and high powered politicking outside almost don't fit together, like they've been borrowed from different movies, and that's not the only flaw. Several of the comic and characterisation touches feel wrong (the Albanian ex-wife will make you think Lee's been joking all along) and simply pad the drama out unnecessarily, jarring you rudely out of the movie.

The payoff of the brilliant plan is indeed brilliant, but Lee's talent for drama is also his downfall; it's almost the least important part of a long-winded and meandering climax that doesn't resolve itself except with throwaway gestures and then – ironically – finishes too quickly.

None of this is to say the film isn't enjoyable, the camerawork and the dialogue and action tense. It's never boring – it could be Lee simply isn't as effective when he's not being political and/or working with his own stories. It could almost be termed Lee's Hitchcock movie, keeping you on the edge of your seat waiting for the MacGuffin.

Washington and the rest of the cast are as dependable as ever, with Owen now securely a Hollywood heavy-hitter after such humble international beginnings in drama/thriller The Croupier.

The real star here is producer Brian Grazer. Longtime partner to director Ron Howard (and so enjoying his name on some very high profile movies of the last 20 years, from Splash to the upcoming The Da Vinci Code), he's never been afraid to take on something different, working with some of the best directors around and bringing us interesting projects like 8 Mile and Inside Deep Throat.

So while lightweight compared to the rest of his career, Inside Man isn't the Spike Lee joint you've been hoping for.

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