The new caper yarn Inside Man is a Spike Lee Joint, sho 'nuff, which may explain why pundits and critics are startled to note that the picture might also turn out to be a commercial hit. After all, the inimitable Mr. Lee is a maverick filmmaker who has always marched to his own beat, which, unfortunately for him, usually means soft-to-nonexistent box office regardless of the picture's quality.
While other African-American directors have had to either (take your pick of phrases) sell themselves short or simply sell out -- who ever thought talented filmmakers like Bill Duke and John Singleton would be handed sloppy seconds on the rancid order of Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit and 2 Fast 2 Furious, respectively? -- Lee has always held true to his convictions, potential fallout be damned.
So don't think for a New York minute Inside Man suggests Lee is on the road to churning out Scary Movie sequels. For one thing, this latest picture can hardly be pegged as Lee's first mainstream venture -- despite their status as resounding flops, the provocative 25th Hour (with its high-powered cast) and the woefully underrated Clockers (with its high-powered premise) were major-studio tickets, and even the excellent Malcolm X connected with enough audiences to recoup its costs and emerge as Lee's top grosser to date. Indeed, a substantial number of Lee's films have been released by top-tier studios, so it's not like this is the first time that he's been involved in a production where the stars are given their own support staffs and the budget for the catering might conceivably pay off a small country's national debt. More to the point, Inside Man isn't your typical bank heist flick, either in structure or in spirit.
The movie kicks off in standard play mode, with a quartet of intruders -- decked out in painters' overalls, sunglasses and masks -- commandeering the Manhattan Trust bank in New York's Wall Street district. Armed with machine guns, these three men and a lady order the 50 hostages to hand over their cell phones, strip down to their underwear and don outfits identical to the ones worn by the robbers (shades of the current V For Vendetta, in which the mysterious vigilante orders his hostages to likewise don masks just like his in order to facilitate his escape among confused lawmen). Once the hostage situation is secure, gang leader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) patiently waits for the police to arrive to assess the situation and listen to demands.
He doesn't have to wait long. After initial contact is made, the NYPD turns to hostage negotiators Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take charge of the facilitating. Not surprisingly, Russell asks for a jet to take his team to safety and, in the interim, pizza to feed his hungry hostages.
So far, so Dog Day Afternoon -- and, indeed, references are made not only to that Sidney Lumet classic but also to Lumet's Serpico. It's a telling homage, because Lee long ago joined Lumet and Woody Allen as the most NYC-centric directors around, repeatedly envisioning the sprawling metropolis not merely as a setting but as a vibrant character in the unfolding scenarios. But whereas Allen has tended to concentrate on the upper-crust intelligentsia, Lee, like Lumet, has preferred to take it to the streets, to show the wide spectrum of folks who inhabit this glorious city. He's as likely to spend time with a homeless man as he is with a master of the universe.
In Inside Man, the upper-crust is repped by Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the bank's founder and the person most worried about the robbery unfolding at his institution. Concealed within the confines of the bank is something that would ruin Case if it ever saw the light of day. To avoid this unpleasantry, he employs the services of Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), an enigmatic woman who has made a career out of helping wealthy clients out of sticky situations. It's largely with the introduction of these two players that Inside Man veers away from the expected narrative developments and instead starts piling on the plot twists and character about-faces.
The screenplay is by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, and it displays enough promise that he can largely be forgiven for the occasional lapses in logic (most pressingly, why didn't Case destroy that smoking gun stored away at the bank a long time ago?). Besides, whatever Gewirtz's original intent, it appears that the heist itself is largely a red herring in the mind of Spike Lee.
While delivering the goods with a thriller premise, Lee is once again more interested in making astute observations about contemporary society, especially as it relates to a post-9/11 mind-set. Inside Man doesn't delve into 9/11 as deeply as 25th Hour -- in that film, the central characters actually take time out from the central plot to view the decimated Ground Zero and reflect on the tragedy. Here, Lee and Gewirtz only slip in related material here and there, most memorably in a sequence in which one of the released hostages, a Sikh, is roughly manhandled by cops who assume he's an Arab and, by extension, an evildoer potentially threatening -- what's the fashionable term? -- our way of life. Yet racial profiling isn't Lee's only talking point, as he also touches on the proliferation of violent video games (Russell admonishes a young boy for playing a gore-splattered game called Kill Dat Nigga), the casual racism that becomes more prevalent the further one scales up that social ladder, and the notion of New York as a big melting pot in which no language or culture is unrepresented (this is examined in an amusing interlude in which a cassette featuring an unrecognizable dialect is broadcast to lingering bystanders in the hope that somebody will be able to identify it).
Lee and Gewirtz aren't always subtle, as evidenced by the fact that Foster's soulless and de-sexed character is named Ms. White. (With the exception of Whoopi Goldberg, I can think of no other actress who's repeatedly required to be less feminine on screen than Ms. Foster, though here that works to her role's advantage.) On the other hand, Lee does downplay his usual technical flourishes, though whether that's an asset or a debit is open for discussion. Inside Man is filmed in a more conventional manner (at least for Lee), but there's one moment when the director employs one of his favorite show-off tricks: a character gliding in the foreground while the background images progress at a different speed. Excessive and intrusive? Perhaps. But all I know is that I got pleasurable goosebumps when I saw this shot, and the scattered claps and cheers in my auditorium verified that I wasn't the only one appreciative of this defining Spike Lee signature move.