It’s not very often that Spike Lee directs a movie that he didn’t write. Perhaps that’s why all the trailers and TV ads for his new movie, “Inside Man,” downplay the controversial director’s involvement, instead stressing its “perfect bank robbery” set-up and star power.
Clive Owen is the brilliant perpetrator, Jodi Foster the strong-willed power broker, and Denzel Washington — in his fourth collaboration with Lee — plays the dogged hostage negotiator with a questionable stain on his recent police work. What the previews don’t tell you, however, is that another main character threatens to overshadow them all.
At center stage is the thriving, multicultural heart of New York City, in all of its post-9/11 intensity, warts and all.
By design, the thriller element of “Inside Man” includes an elaborate plot that gives 30 or more minor characters (most of them bank hostages) an ample amount of screen time to represent the country’s uniquely diverse epicenter. Unlike the one-dimensional L.A. stereotypes in last year’s Best Picture winner — the maudlin “Crash” — the inhabitants of Lee’s NYC actually have a sense of humor.
And these characters and bit players do more than prattle on unabated about race issues. They have individual personality quirks and different reactions to the stressful hostage situation and subsequent questionings — like when cops remove a possible suspect’s turban, and the angry Sikh man demands it be returned before speaking with the detectives. These characters remind us of real people.
A tough cop (Denzel Washington) matches wits with clever bank robber (Clive Owen) in Spike Lee’s latest joint — a cat-and-mouse game wherein a sexy power broker with a hidden agenda (Jodie Foster) emerges to mix it up some.
The script, written by first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, is a clever little potboiler that combines the keep-you-guessing psychological element of Alfred Hitchcock with the socio-political tension of Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (one of Lee’s favorite films, and mentioned by Washington in this film). If it weren’t for the fact that the story’s central “secret” involves an item so incriminating that it really shouldn’t even exist, the movie’s suspense would be airtight.
Washington is magnetic, exuding a breezy charm as a cocky detective who is offered a chance at redemption by heading up the hostage situation. His dialogue seems so natural that one has to wonder how much of it was actually improvised. Foster, too, radiates confidence, obviously relishing her whip-smart role as a mysterious behind-the-scenes manipulator. Her memorable scene with an annoyed mayor is a downplayed high point. Owen is effective as well, although he spends much of his time with his face covered.
Lee invests this crime movie with a richness of location and character that only a resident of New York could. He spices up a genre he isn’t necessarily known for with some of his trademark sweeping camera pans and shots from above, giving the film an operatic quality. Terence Blanchard’s ethic-oriented music and jazzy orchestral score also contribute to making “Inside Man” more about the city and less about plot twists. As the conclusion slowly winds its way down, it is clear that Lee is less interested with the machinations of the heist than he is with making “Inside Man” both an indictment of the old money that built his beloved city and a love letter to the melting pot’s residents.