Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Review - Inside Man

There’s something about the average Spike Lee film which tends to leave me unsatisfied, but I’m not sure what exactly it is that leaves me so cold. Lee is clearly one of the most provocative, intelligent and talented filmmakers to emerge in the past twenty years; his films are always fascinating, and often filled with moments of brilliance; and his films are, almost without exception, supremely well acted. Yet, with the exception of 1989’s searing masterpiece Do The Right Thing, few of his films have really come together in a satisfying way for me. I think it’s the case that Lee is occasionally a little too provocative for his own good; allowing his polemical anger and righteous filmmaking style overwhelm the basic story we’ve come to see.

Lee’s career recently reached its undoubted nadir with She Hate Me, a confused and utterly contemptible diatribe against, well, everything, which seemed to indicate that Lee’s once bright star was waning fast. Who could have imagined that he would bounce back so quickly? Inside Man feels nothing like a Spike Lee film. It’s a slick, cool and taut thriller which more readily recalls the work of directors like Sidney Lumet and Michael Mann than Spike himself. It’s the most purely enjoyable film of the year so far, and it ranks as one of the best Lee has ever directed.

Inside Man is a heist movie with, as is customary, a twist. The scene is a major Manhattan bank on an ordinary day, with various customers and employees plodding through their daily routine. Few of them pay any attention to the group of painters, dressed in overalls, who enter the bank carrying trolleys full of decorating equipment. They only begin to suspect something is amiss when one of the group begins locking the doors, but by then it’s too late. The gang of painters are actually a highly organised group of thieves, and they are now in the midst of a hostage situation.

The detectives on the scene are Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his assistant Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Frazier is under something of a cloud at work pending an investigation into some missing drug bust funds, so perhaps a good showing during this incident could work in his favour? However, Frazier’s nerves are tested to the limit by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a criminal who seems to be forever in control, and as the situation escalates one question keeps nagging away at the back of Frazier’s mind: What do these criminals actually want?

For this is no ordinary bank heist, and the truth of the matter is ingeniously unfolded. Inside Man has been scripted by first-time writer Russell Gerwitz, and it’s an auspicious debut; offering a skilfully worked puzzler of a plot, laced with some welcome doses of humour and memorable characters given their space to shine. Gerwitz puts the plot together with efficiency and his ability to throw numerous twists into the mix, keeping the audience on their toes while keeping the action plausible and logical, is impressive. There are little lapses here and there, when the boundaries of reality are stretched a little and a couple of characters’ behaviour proves a little odd, but for the most part Gerwitz delivers a snappy and tightly constructed screenplay which is constantly involving and inventive.

With this solid foundation in place, Lee has assembled a classy cast whose contributions help elevate this material even further. Washington, of course, is a class act. He exudes intelligence and his Frazier is a charming, intelligent, flawed character who is wholly believable. He’s a character who never lets his guard drop, is always waiting for a sign of weakness to appear for him to grab hold of, and we see this in action during the post-crime interviews Lee drops in at various points during the action; when Frazier engages in light-hearted banter with his interviewee, but pounces as soon as he spots the slightest opening. It’s a performance of consummate professionalism which gives the film a rock-solid centre.

As the criminal mastermind, Owen gives a much more assured display than one can usually expect from him. It seems like he has finally found a role for which his one-note style and coldly detached demeanour is well suited. He spends most of the film with his face hidden behind a mask, and his carefully controlled delivery lends Dalton an ambiguity which livens up the cat-and-mouse exchanges between he and Frazier considerably. The rest of the well-chosen cast all perform admirably. Jodie Foster is slightly hamstrung by having a role which is never clearly defined, and often seems like little more than a character created simply to help smooth over some niggling plot details, but her lively portrayal is always interesting; and there’s fine support from the ever-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe and a typically supercilious turn from Christopher Plummer as the bank owner who has more to lose than most in this raid.

But one comes away from the film remembering the small moments, the almost incidental asides which make up the whole; and this is where Lee’s direction really bears fruit. He fills the smaller roles with a smart selection of New York character actors and they’re each given their chance to shine. There’s the old lady who puts up a fight when all the hostages are forced to strip; there’s the local street cop who first raises the alarm and hangs around to tell Frazier an anecdote, unfortunately revealing a few prejudices along the way; and there’s a builder who is forced to call his ex-wife to help out the police, leading to one of the many well-played comical scenes. Lee’s feel for New York, his ability to capture its energy and spirit, sends a real surge of life through Inside Man; and in a year when a film like Crash can win Best Picture at the Oscars, isn’t it wonderful to see a film which celebrates a city’s multiculturalism while giving a realistic portrayal of race relations?

The old Lee is still in there; he’s still making his racial points, but here they are simply pointed side notes to the main event. The director’s work on Inside Man is cool and understated, and all the better for it. One moment, when he cuts to a child’s violent videogame recalls the unfortunate excesses of Clockers, but it’s over an a few moments and we’re on with the show. Lee’s restrained style is a welcome change of pace, and it makes his occasional directorial indulgences really stand out as they should.

This is new territory for the director, a straightforward genre picture, and he almost loses his way late on. The final ten minutes, in which Gerwitz and Lee labour over tying up various loose ends, is a disappointingly flaccid climax which threatens to spoil the whole show. Inside Man ends with a whimper rather than a bang, but the rather deflated effect it leaves is fleeting. For the bulk of its running time it’s a punchy, smart and brilliantly entertaining piece of work. Spike Lee has made the most un-Spike Lee type film of his career, and it‘s a change of direction which should satisfy everyone.