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Inside Man (Movie 2006): Conventional Spike Lee Thriller

Inside Man by Spike Lee, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie FosterInside Man offers a long day’s journey into nought: I’ve seen little of Spike Lee’s oeuvre. As far as I’m concerned, the overblown portrayal of ethnic relations in Do the Right Thing, which remains Lee’s most acclaimed film, makes the overblown portrayal of ethnic relations in Paul HaggisCrash look like a model of subtlety and understatement. I also tried watching Mo’ Better Blues, but gave up on it long before the final credits.

I decided to check out Inside Man after learning that it wasn’t the usual Spike Lee flick. Lee’s latest was supposed to be nothing more than an intricate, suspense-filled story about a bank heist (see synopsis) – in fact, Lee became involved only after Ron Howard opted to make Cinderella Man instead.

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Fervently hoping I wouldn’t have to sit through any ethnically conscious speechifying, I bravely walked into a Westwood theater showing Inside Man. My hopes were to be shattered in an unexpected manner – but I’ll get to that later on. After all, through most of Inside Man I was less concerned about being preached to than about being cheated on by Lee’s desultory direction, the film’s myriad inane plot twists, and its generally subpar performances.

The plot itself, by tyro feature-film screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, is chock-full with inconsistencies and banalities. (A key plot element revolves around the fact that a very powerful man has apparently never heard of shredding machines.) Despite the going back-and-forth in time and loads of little twists, the whole enterprise offers little tension and no sense of dread. Final plot revelations are nothing short of mind boggling for their woeful lack of imagination.

Compounding matters, Lee’s handling of the action feels surprisingly amateurish, especially considering that he has been in the business for nearly three decades, and that Inside Man is a multi-million-dollar production – i.e., with lots of money for retakes. The heist itself looks like something out of a no-budget indie film, with the director’s friends and relatives playing the hostages. (“Aunt Ethel, try to look really scared!”) And do we really need hot-and-steamy music whenever a seductive black woman appears on screen?

Considering all the other issues hindering Inside Man, it should come as no surprise that the acting in the film is for the most part mediocre. Denzel Washington phones in a mechanical performance that makes his character – already a nonentity when compared to Clive Owen’s infinitely cleverer heistmeister – seem like a total loser. Owen, for his part, does an acceptable job, but “acceptable” is quite a letdown for such a potentially charismatic criminal.

In a just world, Chiwetel Ejiofor (the immigrant doctor in Dirty Pretty Things and the transvestite of Kinky Boots) would have played the lead in Inside Man, but since this is still a planet called Earth, he merely plays second banana to the more box office friendly Washington. As for veteran Christopher Plummer, he is the film’s unintentional joke. The moment Plummer appears on screen, without even uttering a word, we know his character is up to no good – and there goes one of the plot’s key mysteries. That leaves Jodie Foster as the only performer in Inside Man with both an interesting role – a power broker who is as smart as she is unscrupulous – and the cunning to play it to the hilt.

Now, despite all my criticisms, is Inside Man a total failure? Definitely not. The twists and turns may be obvious and not all that convincing (and I must admit that I couldn’t make head or tails out of a few of them), but they did keep this viewer’s interest. Even though this purported thriller is never really thrilling, it is never dull, either. In fact, Inside Man is at its best when it stops trying to rise up to the level of Dog Day Afternoon and The Usual Suspects, and is content with being merely an adequate B-actioner.

But truly, the most shocking and most memorable moment in Inside Man has absolutely nothing to do with the bank heist or any other plot element. That moment occurs when director Lee (perhaps abetted by screenwriter Gewirtz) stops the action so as to do a little ethnically conscious speechifying.

That’s when Clive Owen’s bank robber sits with one of his hostages, a pre-teen black kid, while the boy plays a portable video game (created specifically for the film). In the game, shown in close-up, we see black street thugs trying to kill other black men. You win for each black man you get, with the subtitle “Kill Dat Nigga” popping up on screen when a target is hit.

What stayed in my mind after leaving the theater was that sickeningly violent video game. Who cares about Clive Owen’s motives, Christopher Plummer’s past, Denzel Washington’s police work, or Jodie Foster’s association with an Osama bin Laden relative looking for a Manhattan flat? The questions I was asking myself while walking back to my car were, Who makes those violent games? How could parents think such a vile thing is ok for their children? Sex is generally a taboo in video games, but bloody murder isn’t?

Indeed, that video game stuck in my memory because I saw it (and its real-life counterparts) as a more disturbing reflection of the world we live in than any B-movie bank heist, no matter how elaborate.


Led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), a group of masked bank robbers take charge of the Wall Street branch of Manhattan Trust, one of the world’s largest financial institutions. Russell seems to have thought of everything: the hostages, who can’t quite tell the gender of the bank robbers, are bound, gagged, and stored in different rooms. Additionally, the hostages must dress up to look just like the masked gunmen so the police won’t be able to tell hostage from heistmeister.

Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who feels he deserves a promotion, is called in to handle the situation. But despite his dogged determination, Frazier is no match for the intelligent, meticulous, and equally determined Russell.

Things get even more complicated when the Chairman of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), a powerful man who’s so stupid – or so anal-retentive – that he refuses to destroy self-incriminating evidence from years past, hires an unscrupulous high-profile power broker, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to interfere with the cops-and-robbers negotiations.

Albeit somewhat slow-witted, Frazier eventually realizes that this bank heist is about more than just (hundred) dollar bills.

Inside Man (2006)

Director: Spike Lee.

Screenplay: Russell Gewirtz.

Cast: Denzel Washington. Clive Owen. Jodie Foster. Christopher Plummer. Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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