Inside Man
11 April 2006
by Mandy J Watson
South AfricaCape Town, South Africa

Inside Man is probably Spike Lee's most mainstream and accessible movie, although it is not without his trademark strong lead black characters and social commentary.

Inside Man: Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), Steve (Carlos Andres Gomez), Stevie (Kim Director) and Steve-O (James Ransone) ordering everyone in the bank to get down on the floorAs the movie begins the Bollywood song Chaiyya Chaiyya plays over the opening credits (and a remix version subsequently plays over the closing credits). The song is either catchy or irritating, depending on your particular disposition (I thoroughly enjoyed it), but I was never quite able to ascertain its relevance to the rest of the movie. However it did put me in a positive frame of mind by the time the story opened with Clive Owen's character, Dalton Russell, introducing himself and his forthcoming attempt to break into a Manhattan bank - "because I can" - to the audience in an odd monologue that breaks the fourth wall. Although not necessarily out of place, such things tend to sit uncomfortably with an audience but, in this case, it was executed well and was engaging, immediately drawing you into the story.

We are immediately taken from the energy of Chaiyya Chaiyya to the more gentle score by Terence Blanchard, which I absolutely loved. Throughout the movie it suits the settings perfectly, adding subtle emotional impact to scenes rather than trying to hit us over the head with it. We are introduced to lower Manhattan and watch as events naturally unfold and the robbery becomes a (planned) hostage situation. The case is assigned, by default - the division's best detective is on vacation - to Detective Keith Frazier, expertly played by Denzel Washington, and his partner Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Detective Frazier is currently under investigation in connection with some irregularities in a previous case and the disappearance of evidence and therefore he reluctantly accepts the assignment and role as hostage negotiator. Initially there is some resistance to the two detectives arriving on scene as it signifies a psychological component to the situation that the gung-ho SWAT units, which had already surrounded the building and cordoned off the area, find hard to respect. However, the coordinator on scene, Detective John Darius, who is played by Willem Dafoe in probably the most understated, least-layered portrayal of his career, recognises the value and expertise that Detective Frazier brings to the situation, and there is relative harmony after the initial confrontations and jockeying for positions.

Inside Man: Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) and Madeline White (Jodie Foster) discuss securing the safe deposit boxThe action primarily takes place in the bank, which is situated in lower Manhattan, and there is a subtle sense of 9/11 residing behind the visuals and the action - even though the event is never referenced - as the very architecture and infrastructure of the area seems to have absorbed the energy of the disaster. I think that this is the first time I have felt this is in a fictional movie, and it adds an unsettling feeling to the movie, which, in this case, works very well to heighten the tension between the characters as the hostage drama unfolds. Presumably one has to thank the cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, for bringing this to the screen.

Jodie Foster plays a slightly smarmy, detached "problem solver" in one of the most interesting parts she has chosen in recent years. Although she is only on screen for a few minutes at a time in perhaps four or five scenes, her portrayal dominates those moments and, for me, results in the stand-out performance of the movie. Her character, Madeline White, is hired by the excessively wealthy to intervene in situations or observe events in order to manage certain outcomes to the benefit of her employers. They hire her, in essence, when they need something sensitive sorted out on the quiet. She doesn't ask questions beyond what she needs to know to do the job and has no particular loyalties to anyone or anything besides the task at hand. In this case, the chairman of the board of the banking group, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, in a compelling, restrained performance), hires Madeline to secure, or ensure the destruction of, sensitive documents that are being stored in the bank. She comes and goes throughout the movie, always with a wry smile and a soft-spoken demeanour, subtly - in most cases - manipulating events to her advantage in order to fulfill the request of Arthur Case.

Inside Man: Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) holds the bank door open for Steve (Carlos Andres Gomez) to take the pizzas while Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) looks onUnlike many of Spike Lee's other movies, this one isn't particularly heavy handed in its observations of culture and ethnicity, and general social commentary, bar one rather overt scene that mocks the American attitude towards, and treatment of, Arabs and Muslims. About the only other scene is a brief comment regarding the violence of computer games and the moral degeneration of today's youth. There is also the odd racial slur but they come naturally from the characterisations and, to me, more accurately depict the way in which people in New York tend to relate to one another. To be honest, I didn't even notice most of them until I made the mistake of reading a rant about it on the IMDb's forum.

For the most part this remains a tight, well-paced movie, although the genre is hard to define. It combines elements of drama, crime drama, suspense thriller, action, and comedy but never lingers very long in any one area, which keeps the movie flowing well, and there are enough plot twists and turns that you are never completely sure of the outcomes of the events. The story also jumps backwards and forwards in time between the events of the hostage situation and the subsequent interrogation of the jumble of hostages and bank robbers by the detectives who are trying to distinguish the bank robbers from the actual hostages. The editing superbly handles the general pace requirements of the movie and the backwards-forwards movement of the timeline.

Inside Man: Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe) outside the bank These interrogation scenes, meanwhile, lead to some amusing moments that break the tension and give the actors playing those characters something more interesting to do than play stereotypical cowering victims on the floor of a bank fearing for their lives. Instead they are afforded the opportunity to infuse their characters with a spirit and personality; in fact, there are almost no flat, wasted characters it the movie. There are also no characters who can absolutely be pinpointed as "good" or "bad" characters, as most live in the grey area in-between, and it makes for a much more compelling story.

Inside Man is an engrossing, expertly executed movie filled with layers and unexpected subtleties. If for no other reason than to observe this it is worth watching more than once - the first time for the overall experience and subsequent times to watch more closely how the complicated puzzle pieces of the robbery plan fit together.



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Key Facts
Year: 2006
Format: Feature; widescreen; colour
Running Time: 129 minutes (approx)
Language: English
Country: USA
Director: Spike Lee
Writing: Russell Gewirtz (written by)
Cast: Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier)
Cast: Clive Owen (Dalton Russell)
Cast: Jodie Foster (Madeline White)
Cast: Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case)
Cast: Willem Dafoe (Captain John Darius)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell)
Cast: Carlos Andrés Gómez (Steve)
Cast: Kim Director (Stevie)
Cast: James Ransone (Steve-O)
Cast: Peter Gerety (Captain Coughlin)
Cast: Victor Colicchio (Sergeant Collins)
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Film Editing: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Terence Blanchard
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