Spike Lee, heretofore the most subversive director in American cinema, has gone mainstream. His new heist film, “Inside Man,” is a major studio picture produced by Universal’s Brian Grazer (“The Cat in the Hat”), and features a cherry-picked batch of Hollywood’s top stars. Perhaps due to the many egos involved, this “joint” goes through a strange succession of styles (police film, political piece, racial comedy) as these conflicting interests play out on the screen. Fortunately, the plot is brisk enough to keep “Inside Man” from unraveling.
Perpetrating a new spin on the familiar celluloid bank robbery, Lee loosens up enough to have some fun. Some of signature Spike remains — the clash of races and cultures in the Big City surfaces as a major theme — but “Inside Man” focuses on suspense rather than politics. Don’t expect anything more than a breezy spring release: this is about making some bank, not great film making.
Set in New York, Spike Lee’s home base, “Inside Man” chronicles the robbery of the main branch of Manhattan Trust and the political jockeying surrounding it. After Dalton Russell (Clive Owen at his most laconic), enters the bank with three partners and takes hostages, the NYPD are called in to stake out the front of the building. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), smarting from a previous failure and looking for promotion, is put in charge. Despite little experience in a hostage situation, Frazier improvises his way through several hard calls using tried-and-true police instincts. Attempting to decode Russell’s strange thieving tactics, he is also forced to synchronize with Police Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe) and address the demands of a mysterious “power broker” (Jodie Foster), sent by bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). The forces behind Russell’s robbery, of course, remain hidden until the very end.
Lee controls the suspense perfectly, putting the pieces of the plot together with a deft touch. Both bad guy Russell and good guy Frazier are likeable, and the game of cat and mouse between the two is engaging and intelligent. Jodie Foster’s character Madeline is a welcome addition to this traditional duality. Manipulative and enigmatic, she plays both sides with a Cheshire smile.
Of course, “Inside Man,” is, at its heart, a blockbuster melodrama. The actors collectively, with the exception of Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, overplay their roles with glee. Christopher Plummer especially does a fine turn as the innocent (until proven guilty) bank owner Arthur Case, whose sniveling scheming wouldn’t be out of place in “As the World Turns.”
The storyline is all in good fun, but Lee’s insistent and patronizing racial messages sometimes spoil the mood. Many scenes are irrelevant to the plot, instead pursuing unrealistic and superfluous comic interactions between ethnic robbers, cops and citizens. The idea to humorously explore the clash of the many multi-ethnic peoples of New York is a good one, and one pulled off by Lee successfully before. Unfortunately, the writing here isn’t able to achieve the intricacy required to make these vignettes work.
Writer Russell Gewirtz — lucky enough to sell “Inside Man,” his first script, to Universal — pens a screenplay that is plot heavy, but dialog dumb. His attempts to replicate the stylized quips of a 30s comedy are clumsy, and frequently make the film seem like parody. Racial themes are similarly heavy-handed. Lee’s superb “Do the Right Thing” depended on the realism of its dialogue to capture racial divides in New York. But here, rather than cleverly transcending stereotypes, Gewirtz simply overdoes them. “Inside Man” is almost typecast, perpetuating racial stereotypes rather than realistically illustrating them. That said, some of the scenes hit the right balance between irony and truth, eliciting a nervous humor typical of Lee’s best films.
Ultimately, “Inside Man” is nothing new, even for Spike Lee. The film’s style, mostly made up of dizzying 360 degree camera spins, is borrowed directly from Lee’s previous film “25th Hour.” Gone are the bright colors and eerie lenses of that earlier work — “Inside Man” comes veneered with the sterile polish of big-budget Hollywood.
Spike sleepwalks through this exercise, hopefully to rise another day.