2006Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster
ince breaking through with Do the Right Thing in 1989, Spike Lee has been presented as America’s black director. Perhaps it would be nice if discussions of Lee’s work did not immediately hinge on race, or on that operative word, “black.” He has, without question, proven himself as one of America’s most engaging and intelligent filmmakers. Period. But Lee’s race, if not directly mentioned in interviews and articles, seems often to be sitting quietly in the corner of the room, and Lee, for his part, has embraced that notion. He seems to take it as his unique opportunity to discuss issues of race and discrimination, as in Malcolm X (1992) and Clockers (1995). Now, with his new film Inside Man, he is up to something different. He’s still discussing racial issues. It’s his vocabulary that has changed.
Inside Man is a heist movie, new territory for Lee. We are met in the film’s first image by the cold, tactful eyes of Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) staring straight back at us. “Recently, I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery,” he says, and then tells us, quite explicitly, the where, when, and why of the robbery story that is about to unfold: Manhattan, less than a week ago, because he can. But even at this moment—the first moment—Lee’s film has the viewer trapped. Russell’s heist is a complex series of misdirections, but that much is typical. Atypical is the film’s roaming point of view: inside the bank with the thieves, out on the street with our strong-hearted hero-in-over-his-head–Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington)—and sometime in the future, via interrogation scenes that are cut to at various points in the movie.
In other words, the audience learns the fine points of Russell’s heist on its own schedule, regardless of the story’s chronology. We are, in effects, hostages to the information of the film, which Lee divulges sparingly. Russell’s plan appears frenetic and incomprehensible onscreen. The clues given to us by the police are only a modest help when they come, and then there is the odd side-business of the bank’s chairman, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), hiring power broker Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to protect the secret contents of one of the bank’s safety deposit boxes.
The story that unfolds after Owen’s taciturn mug introduces the scene is one of the most finely written film capers in recent memory, calling to mind other brilliant heist films like The Usual Suspects as much as it evokes the two films Inside Man’s characters directly reference: The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon. Sure, it has some faults, especially where Russell’s background is concerned, but Lee succeeds brilliantly in weaving unpredictable criminality with police procedural drama, film noir, and social observation in tune with the bulk of his oeuvre. But what makes Inside Man even better is its sense of time and place within its setting (New York) and its cultural moment (America in 2006). This element is pure, 100 percent, stamped and certified Spike Lee.
Early in Inside Man, the camera glides through the Manhattan bank central to the story, investigating the people who happen to be gathered there: The white girl with the strong Queens accent talking loudly into space—or rather, into her headset cell phone; the Asian thirty-something giving her cold looks over his shoulder; several black men are working as guards; and behind a desk is a bearded man in a turban, whom we are later told is a Sikh. Here, Lee is developing his signature sense of community—a sense of real New Yorkers crammed together in tight, overdeveloped space. “Where else could a story like this happen?”, Lee seems to wonder. And at what other time? This is a post-9/11 heist, after all, with guns and smoke and villains with foreign accents (Owen is English). 25th Hour may have been Lee’s allegory of New York in the wake of 9/11, but Inside Man copes with the same cultural baggage. When Owen’s Russell points a magnum in a beat cop’s face to announce his control of the bank to the outside world, he feigns a Middle Eastern accent that confuses the police in following scenes. When the Sikh, a hostage, is sent out to deliver a message, the police approaching him shout that he is an Arab, suspecting he is carrying a bomb.
In other words, Lee and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz use the current cultural climate to inform their action story. No, Inside Man is not a deep as, say, Do The Right Thing. Yes, these moments of cultural discussion are only side points in a more visceral story. But they are enough, adding immediacy–and occasionally humor–to a genre rarely so socially aware. After all, when else would something as subtle as an accent cause so much concern?
While Inside Man succeeds in imbuing an action movie with a level of intelligent discourse, it struggles with one filmic element: its look. Do not mistake this statement--Inside Man looks great. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has crafted a masterpiece of mood, employing very dark, single-source lighting, casting long shadows across the bank’s massive entryway. You get the sense that Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would be right at home here, until morning--when they realized it wasn’t 1951.
Action films need speed, movement, and rapid editing. Inside Man has speed; it just doesn’t have any breaks. Lee and Libatique’s camera never stops moving. Never. Panning in and out. Shaking through handhelds. Spinning in circles. Cutting into a high overhead shot that cranes downward. The need for a lot of camera movement is certainly logical and artistically valid. The narrative is fast and action-packed, and common thought says the film should look the same. But without any lull, the viewer begins to notice the motion, rather than feel it as a device aiding the story. After a while, it begins to induce sea-sickness, and Lee’s efforts toward commentary are hindered in the process, as his audience never has a moment to mull things over.
This point, though, is a fleeting criticism: Inside Man is mostly masterful. Lee may remain the country’s niche “black director,” but here he has proven his range, bringing his expertise in cultural discussion to an action drama. The heist genre is certainly the better for it.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-03-31