FILM REVIEW: INSIDE MAN
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
Fairly diverting bank-heist doings, "Inside Man" stars two of the coolest cucumbers in contemporary film: Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, both of whom have a way of holding your attention without expending a speck of visible effort. It's a lovely, catlike quality to have, if you happen to be a movie star who is first and foremost an actor.
The cast also includes Jodie Foster, swanning around as a Manhattan power broker of mysterious purpose, and Christopher Plummer, a Zen master of untrustworthy authority in the role of a financier with something to hide. The excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Four Brothers") plays a New York City police detective; Willem Dafoe shows up as an Emergency Services Unit police captain. Hostages aside, nary a bead of sweat forms on any given brow in this picture.
The film itself, however, is not catlike. It's more of a puppy, hopping around here and there, circling its actors, darting this way and that. Billed as "a Spike Lee joint," this one's a Spike-for-hire affair, a case of a flashy director juicing up a first-time screenwriter's efforts.
Writer Russell Gewirtz's introductory monologue-to-the-camera, delivered by Owen as criminal mastermind Dalton Russell, takes place inside what appears to be a prison cell. The story proper unfolds as a two-hour flashback explaining how our host, one in a long movie line of verbally adroit gentleman-thieves, arrived at this juncture, beginning with the daytime siege of the main Manhattan Trust bank branch. Wearing a mask and sunglasses for much of the picture, Owen's Russell takes hostages. He does not, however, appear to be interested in taking the bank's money. He's after something else.
Detective Frazier (Washington), trying to clear his name of corruption charges, is assigned to the case and goes about his business, which is keeping hostages alive and getting home to his woman. In a storytelling strategy of uneven payoff, Gewirtz and Lee interrupt the hostage situation, which soon turns bloody, with flash-forward, after-the-fact scenes of Frazier and his partner (Ejiofor) questioning the hostages. Whom can they trust?
At this point in his career, Lee can be trusted to engage and affront in equal measure. The director's visual aesthetic remains a mixed blessing. Half the time with "Inside Man," Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique are whooping it up with whirling-dervish maneuvers designed to create a feeling of ... a camera endlessly circling around the actors. Lee tosses in his outlandish signature shot, the superglide, in which his protagonist barrels forward in space yet remains utterly immobile, like a statue on a bobsled. Some of this plays like storytelling insecurity, or directorial boredom. Yet when he's on his game, Lee imparts an authentically charged feeling of New York chaos.
I'm usually patsy No. 1 when it comes to narrative trickery, but some of screenwriter Gewirtz's surprises lack surprise. "Inside Man" wobbles more and more in its third act, letting the audience get out ahead of Washington's character. Terence Blanchard's score delivers some insinuating jazz lines - a great one is heard when Washington enters the bank for the first time - but too much of the music in other scenes sounds like outtakes from a Bond picture. The whole project, which Universal Studios characterizes, overeagerly, as "a mainstream potboiler," covets the vibe and memory of "Dog Day Afternoon." (Washington's character refers to the film by name.) Yet in its supernaturally smooth heistmeister, played by the supernaturally smooth Owen, "Inside Man" dwells also in the fanciful realm of such '70s items as "11 Harrowhouse."
The good stuff here begins and ends with Washington, here rising out of the exploitation muck that was "Man on Fire." The best scene in "Inside Man" is one of the simplest, a cat-and-mouser, wherein the hostage negotiator played by Washington pays a visit to Foster's wily manipulator. These two play it so cool, yet so clearly enjoy each other's onscreen company, it's a ticklish reminder of the simple pleasures of screen acting. You may have a hard time recalling what Washington and Foster were talking about a day or two later, but sometimes it's enough to watch a couple of pros bat lines back and forth like felines messing with some unfortunate rodent.
Directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Russell Gewirtz; cinematography by Matthew Libatique; production design by Wynn Thomas; music by Terence Blanchard; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; produced by Brian Grazer. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, March 24. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: R (language and some violent images).
Detective Keith Frazier - Denzel Washington
Dalton Russell - Clive Owen
Madeline White - Jodie Foster
Arthur Case - Christopher Plummer
Capt. John Darius - Willem Dafoe
Detective Bill Mitchell - Chiwetel Ejiofor