There is certain charm about a caper flick that is one third sports film, one third mystery and last third, film noir. A charm that Sidney Lumet swore by and made his own in the 70s with his classic trilogy- Anderson Tapes, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. A charm that ensnares most directors once in thier careers, be it the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Woody Allen, Steven Soderberd etc etc. The basic framework of the genre is pretty rudimentary- there are three steps:- 1. Set-up 2. Execution 3. Payoff. The rest is pure jazz. Every director aims to make it his own.
With 'Inside Man' Spike Lee, noted director of socially conscious dramas, takes a swipe at the Caper genre. Lee, the leading African-American director of his time, in an angry man who always has something to say. In fact, sometimes his pontificating has been accused of causing a movie to digress to a degree that the main plot has been left in a haze. Like Scorsese and Allen, he is a New York director but while Scorsese's NY is Italian-American/Irish, Allen's is the intelligentia, Lee's is a boilpot of ethnic identities. And the greatest attribute of 'Inside Man' is that it brings the whole of that uniquely Lee vision to a purely genre flick.
You know you're in for something different the moment the opening credits roll to a Rahman hit. Appreciating the audience's intelligence, Lee wastes absolutely no time with the set up. Within minutes the bank is stormed in and taken hostage by Dalton Russel(Clive Owen) and cronies and we have good-cop-in-trouble Kieth Frazier(Denzel Washington) and partner Bill Mitchel(Chiwetel Ejiofor) at the site trying to deal with the situation. The cat-and- mouse dynamics begin. Russel in no ordinary bank robber. He is intelligent, well-prepared, as sure handed as they come and always a step ahead of the cops. Also, there seems to be more to his scheme than mere robbery. Meanwhile, bank chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) has something inside the safe deposit box that threatens to undermine his respectability and the whole of his life's work. He hires a 'fixer' Ms. White (Jodie Foster) to redeem his 'dark secret'. These are pure genre mechanics and Lee underplays them.
What is overplayed is the social commentary and Lee pulls no punches on that. With the hostages trapped in the bank, Lee has envisioned a multi-ethnic microcosm of New York. In the hands of a lesser director it may have seemed a cheesy ploy but under Lee's sure-handed, angry, ambitious vision the movie soars. Even a certain plot twist involving a loudspeaker is a wonderful tribute to NY's ethnic diversity. Lee also comments on xenophobia, post 9/11 paranoia, corruption of the state and the glorification of violence in hip-hop and the media. Lee's enthusiasm for getting his comment across is evident in the scene where a mere dialouge between Foster and Washington is played in the backdrop of a poster commemorating 9/11. (Lee, by the way, was the first ever directors to refer to the September attacks in a studio film in the superb yet highly underrated movie 'The 25th Hour).
Also, 'Inside Man' is the proverbial cinematic 'cool'. It has an unfakeable panache. It celebrates it's pulpy mechanisms, it's charming humor without ever losing vitality. And most of all, it holds it's steam throughout, even after the final payoff, when the movie lingers a few minutes more.
The Cast is pitch perfect. Clive Owen, despite being behind a mask, comes across convincing as your smarter than the average bank robber. Jodie Foster, taking a break from mom-in-distress roles, relishes playing the small but significant part with mean streak. Eijofor and William Dafoe are wasted with little to do. But it is Denzel Washington that effortlessly puts in a spectacular performance that harks of his 'Easy Rawlins' act in 'Devil in a Blue Dress'. In his fourth Lee movie, he gives a nuanced and cool act as the good cop who still has his price.
Let me just put this straight and effectively:- 'Inside Man' is a must, must, must, must, must watch.