Denzel Washington as Detective Keith Frazier
Clive Owen as Dalton Russell
Jodie Foster as Madeline White
Christopher Plummer as Arthur Case
Willem Dafoe as Captain John Darius
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Detective Bill Mitchell
Carlos Andres Gomez as Steve
Kim Director as Stevie
James Ransome as Steve-O
Bernie Rachelle as Chaim
Peter Gerety as Captain Coughlin
“Inside Man” left me wondering. This wasn’t a bad thing, given how few hostage thrillers manage to knit eyebrows. Spike Lee’s got game, and he brings much of it to bear on Russell Gewirtz’s maiden screenplay pitting NYPD Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) against Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the perfectionist bank robber he tries to outsmart. Set in Lower Manhattan, a bomb’s throw from Wall Street, the action is taut and twisty enough to rivet audience bottoms to their seats. But here’s the wrinkle: Are we supposed to celebrate the avenging spirit of the heist? My jury’s still out.
The crooks, whose goal is not to liberate bullion, spring a surprise that updates for the 00s the “Serpico”‘s and “Dog Day Afternoon”‘s Gewirtz so plainly adores. What could a foursome of felons want from a branch bank that’d make them wield fake weapons, force hostages to wear identical disguises so police can’t differentiate between victim and perp and (again) fake-murder a detainee, if not for cold cash? Chew on it, and only continue reading if you want me to spoil the mystery for you.
As it turns out, the object of the heist are papers in a safety deposit vault documenting the Nazi dealings that enriched geriatric bank founder and board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) during the Holocaust. What, the film seems to be asking, is inside man?-especially when the ultimate inside man probably had a signed copy of “Inside the Third Reich.” (But didn’t Christopher Plummer flee the Nazis singing “Eidelweiss?”)
Case is plainly more troubled by the vulnerability of his stash than by the endangered lives of the hostages. He hires classy, connected Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to negotiate with caper mastermind Russell and Hizzoner to safeguard his “interests.” White is all geometries and no credentials, making us almost, but not quite, embrace her persona. Dalton’s background-and relationship to his cause–is similarly vague. Still, he gives us quality face time, no small feat while wearing a mask. Only a star with Owen’s charisma can charm the audience while gun-whacking innocents en route to settling history’s scores. But then only a character with Dalton’s complexities even thinks to justify such means to such ends. Here’s a criminal who doubles as relationship guru just when we’re sure he has an ideology chip for a heart.
And indeed, gadgets get their glory in this slickest of Spike Lee joints, where a portable video game serves as a character device. It’s a skillful bit of business that has Dalton moralizing to a young black hostage, whose gratuitously violent game celebrates gangsta bloodshed. In multicultural America, the film seems to suggest, each individual believes he’s doing the right thing. And yet, Sikhs are taken as Arab terrorists, Puerto Rican stereotypes arise from a few hoodlums and rabbis seek retribution. Lee is most at home when essaying social tensions amid diversity, and this neatly makes up for the moments when suspense slackens.
The build-up to inevitable siege has our worthy foes straining to maintain their cool and psych out one another’s next step. That the scenario moves in non-linear strides sharpens its jagged edge. Rather it jumps ahead to Frazier’s gritty, unnerving interrogations of the hostages, cutting back and forth in time to gripping effect. With a corruption scandal threatening to hold back this newly promoted cop, whose Emergency Unit Captain (Willem Dafoe) tried to pull rank, Frazier draws on the moral support of his hostage negotiation partner (Chiwetel Ejoifor) and on the silky cell phone coos of his fiancé. As the ordeal stretches on, Frazier grasps that the gang must not want their demands met after all.
What they do want is the murky payoff of the film. Dalton opens and closes by admonishing us to “pay close attention.” As witnesses to the crime, we’re asked to form our moral judgments. Is justice served? I say go see “Inside Man” for yourself.