When a masked criminal (Clive Owen) robs a New York bank, it’s up to a seasoned hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) and his young partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to foil “the perfect bank robbery.” It sounds like the recipe for another generic Hollywood thriller, but in the hands of Spike Lee Inside Man becomes something special.
Made in 2006, this is a departure for the director, who steps out of his own-brand comedy-drama comfort zone and into the realm of genre cinema. The result is a resounding success, as Spike Lee brings to the familiar premise his sharp wit, visual technique and political ideas. While not overtly political like most of his work, Inside Man has plenty of subtext, the imagery and themes providing a great deal of commentary on post-9/11 America.
But that never gets in the way of this plot-driven heist movie. It delivers its promise of “the perfect bank robbery” thanks to intricate plotting by screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, whose script is sometimes funny, sometimes sinister and always tense. It zips along nicely, dropping in references to The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon as if to demonstrate just how consciously the film is playing with the language of cinema.
The all-star ensemble cast carry the piece with confidence. As well as the effortlessly charismatic Denzel Washington and the convincingly scary Clive Owen, there are substantial supporting parts for Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster who’s on particularly fine form in a complex and duplicitous role. My only complaint is that Chiwetel Ejiofor is criminally underused, and it’s never entirely clear why he’s even there. That and one particularly glaring piece of product placement. Excuse me while I run off and buy a Dell computer for some reason.
Ok I’m back. Spike Lee’s skilled direction and the depth of the story ensure that Inside Man avoids the usual heist movie problem of feeling like an extended episode of Hustle. That means you, Now You See Me. This foray into thriller territory proves Spike Lee a director capable of breathing life into the completely redundant Oldboy remake. Smart, stylish and satisfying, Inside Man would make a strong double-bill with The Negotiator for a great night in(side), man.