Hearkening to the halcyon days of Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a clever contraption indeed — a sleek, intelligent, well-acted NYC heist flick whose central scheme is more about subterfuge, cunning, and misdirection than technical gimmickry. (In too many films in the genre — The Score, or Ocean’s 11, for example — the robbers seem to be spending more on state-of-the-art equipment than they’d actually make in the grift.) To be sure, there are some implausibilities throughout, including pretty much all of Jodie Foster’s character and [Spoilers] the idea that Christopher Plummer would keep that Nazi paperwork lying around for sixty years, and the film’s last half-hour takes too long to put the story to bed. That being said, for the most part Inside Man is a slick caper film that offers both legitimately surprising twists and the satisfaction of seeing parts of a well-crafted scheme fall into place like tumblers in a lock. In the immortal words of Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Is that a spoiler? Well, no, not really. The movie (and the trailer) begin with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, charismatic as ever) telling us he has conceived and executed “the perfect bank robbery.” Very soon thereafter, we watch Russell and three accomplices, dressed as painters, walk into a ritzy downtown Manhattan bank, bar the doors, and take hostage of the 20-30 unfortunate New Yorkers therein. Soon, led by detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, in top form) and Bill Mitchell (the always-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) as well as a by-the books captain (Willem DaFoe), the NYPD surround the bank, and a protracted stand-off begins. Meanwhile, the bank’s president (Christopher Plummer) adds an X-factor to the equation by hiring a Fixer of sorts (Jodie Foster, as good as anyone could be in this goofy role) to resolve the situation to his own satisfaction. With the board thus set, the rest of the film involves the pieces moving — We watch the heist unfold over the course of a New York City day and night, punctuated by clips of Washington and Ejiofor interrogating the bank hostages after the fact.
Of course, this isn’t just a well-crafted crime film, but a Spike Lee joint, and it resonates in the details. (In its own way, I’d say this is as strong as Lee’s last movie, The 25th Hour.) As Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek notes in her positive review, “Inside Man is a movie that practices what Crash preaches.” It may be considered bizarre and even Oscar-noteworthy for people of different races and backgrounds to interact in the hermetically-sealed car-culture of Los Angeles, but New Yorkers have been colliding up against each other for some time now. And — unlike in Crash — Lee gets the feel right. (This is his thematic territory, after all.) Particularly noteworthy in this regard are the scenes involving a Sikh bank teller (Waris Ahluwalia) whom the robbers send out with their demands. On sight of turban, the cops immediately treat him like a terrorist bomber, and Ahluwalia manages to sound both terrified and fed up at the same time with the post-9/11 indignity of it all. True, some of the plot mechanics in Inside Man could be considered contrived, but, Jodie Foster’s corporate ninja notwithstanding, at least here the people seem real. (2nd Crash link via Listen Missy.)