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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

New side of Spike

Published: March 31, 2006
Section: Arts, Etc.

Spike Lee brings perhaps the most mainstream effort of his career to audiences everywhere this week with Inside Man. After spending more than twenty years using the city of New York as a lens through which to view the social issues of racism, sexuality and criminality in films such as Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn and 25th Hour, Lee here uses his hometown as a setting for another type of film entirely;

specifically, a heist thriller. Of course, Lee is far too talented a director to indulge in the clichs of the idiom, and aided by Russell Gewirtz's clever and well-structured script and a bravura cast, he brings style and novelty to a story that we have all seen many times before.

The film opens on Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) as he explains directly into the camera how he has constructed and executed the perfect bank robbery, before moving into the extended flashback that forms the lion's share of the piece and demonstrates the truth of Russell's words. Owen's own skillful professionalism serves him well here as he creates a character who embodies the icy and focused demeanor of a truly gifted craftsman. Russell and his gang proceed to seal the bank and take its staff and clientele hostage, leading to a tense standoff that extends into the late hours of the night.

The central character of the film and Russell's opposite number is Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a hostage negotiator who sees the situation as a chance to get out from under an Internal Affairs investigation concerning some missing money from another case. Washington here delivers one of the more subtle and significant performances of his illustrious career, creating a character at once wise and hasty, hampered by his slow progress up the ladder but knowing exactly what he is capable of, if her were given a chance to prove himself. Behind Frazier's foibles and joking attitude, however, lies a keen mind and capacity for intuition that makes him a worthy, if not completely equal opponent to Owen's master criminal.

Intrigue is added by the owner and chairman of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who enlists the aid of mysterious power-broker Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to help manage the situation and recover some incriminating material that lies within the bank's vault. The veteran Plummer rests comfortably on his laurels, hitting all the right notes with a competency that only experience can bring, but doing little else. Foster, on the other hand, breaks from the typecasting of her last two major roles (Flightplan, Panic Room) to have a little fun with White, reveling in her savoir faire and justifiable egotism.

The main cast is rounded out by Frazier's partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe), who heads up the on-site tactical unit. Also of note is the ensemble that portrays the hostages, several of whom are given memorable character moments both inside the bank and in a series of interspersed interview vignettes with Frazier and Mitchell that seem to be taking place after the fact. While these interludes do seem a bit intrusive at first, and dissipate at least some of the tension by revealing early on the safe recovery of all of the hostages, Lee soon settles into a comfortable tempo of intercutting between present and past that serves to layer some of his standard social commentary into the action.

It is ultimately the scripting and Lee's directorial flair, however, that elevate Inside Man above the conventions of its genre. First-time writer Gewirtz crafts a story with strong undertones of Christopher McQuarrie's Oscar-winning script for The Usual Suspects;

while not as innovative in the execution of his concept as McQuarrie, Gewirtz is clearly drawing from the same well while simultaneously creating a screenplay that stands solidly on its own two feet. The flaws that exist, most notably the lack of explanation as to why Case would hold on to the damning evidence hidden in the bank, can more or less be covered over by the suspension of disbelief. Lee, meanwhile, brings his own considerable talents to the project, utilizing the ambience of New York City and its melting pot of mankind to their fullest extent.

With cinematographer Matthew Libatique (She Hate Me) once again behind the camera, Lee demonstrates why he is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation. Watch for his trademark stylized dolly shot, and a shot of Frazier descending some stairs towards the end. These moments are just two among many that make Inside Man much more than another carbon copy of Dog Day Afternoon.