Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man (2006)
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Russell Gerwitz.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Detective Keith Frazier), Clive Owen (Dalton Russell), Jodie Foster (Madeleine White), Christopher Plummer (Arthur Case), Willem Dafoe (Captain John Darius), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Detective Bill Mitchell), Carlos Andrés Gómez (Steve), Kim Director (Stevie), James Ransone (Steve-O), Bernie Rachelle (Chaim), Ken Leung (Wing), Gerry Vichi (Howard Kurtz), Waris Ahluwalia (Vikram Walia), Peter Frechette (Peter Hammond), Amir Ali Said (Brian Robinson), Ed Onipede Blunt (Ray Robinson), Marcia Jean Kurtz (Miriam Douglas), Cassandra Freeman (Sylvia), Peter Gerety (Captain Coughlin), Victor Colicchio (Sergeant Collins), Jason Manuel Olazabal (ESU Officer Hernandez), Al Palagonia (Kevin), Florina Petcu (Ilina), Peter Kybart (Mayor of New York City).
I remember sitting in a theater in 2006 and seeing a preview for the new Denzel Washington movie Inside Man – which looked to be a neat little thriller – the type of which Washington can churn out without breaking a sweat, but is normally of a higher quality than most simply because he’s Denzel, and he elevates everything. And then, in the final moments of the trailer, when the credits flash by quickly, I noticed it said “Directed by Spike Lee”. They didn’t make that part of the advertising campaign – and there was probably a reason for that – Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, 25th Hour and She Hate Me had been his last few films, and none of them had made a lot of money – and other than 25th Hour, they weren’t really critical hits either. It was clear the marketing department thought Lee may be a detriment to the campaign – or at the very least, wasn’t a selling point. I think part of that has led to Inside Man being underrated through the years – looked at as little more than Lee taking a studio paycheque to churn out a genre film – so while the reviews were mainly good, and the box office was far and away the best of Lee’s career- it’s still looked at as minor Spike Lee. I thought the film was better than it was given credit for back in 2006 – and still think so today. Watching it again, so close to the films he was making before – that were angry about capitalism, and the treatment of black bodies like commodities – I see the connections in Inside Man – even if it is, on the surface, a bank heist film. Lee found a way to make his points, but wrap it in a package audiences felt more comfortable with. Whether that message sunk in, I don’t know, but I admire the hell out of Lee for smuggling it in – and still think Inside Man is the one of the best examples ever of an auteur filmmaker taking a studio paycheque, and making their own film buried in genre trappings.
In the film, Denzel stars as Detective Keith Frazier, a NYPD cop who is currently sidelined – put on desk duty because a criminal has accused of stealing $140,000 from him (which, of course, Frazier denies). He gets his chance to get back in the game though when a hostage situation develops at a Manhattan bank – and the regular hostage negotiator is out. From the start, something doesn’t sit right with Frazier about this situations – the criminals inside seem too smart and organized to be making the demands they are making. He thinks all they are doing is buying time. Things get more complicated when he is approached by Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a fixer who works for the wealthy in New York, who has been hired by the bank’s owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) – because he has his personal safety deposit box in that location, and he wants to make sure the contents of which are either recovered, or destroyed. We do see inside the bank – the robbery is being led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) who speaks directly to the camera, and we sometimes flash to interviews with people after the robbery has concluded – which shows the confusion about who was actually doing the robbery as it played out.
As a nifty genre film, Inside Man works remarkably well. Lee has always been a talented craftsman, and here he seems to instinctively know that a film like this needs to move at crackerjack speed, and handles that well. Lee can sometimes give himself over to offshoots and tirades in his films – that can be interesting, but also drag the films down a little, and pad the runtime – but he doesn’t much do that here. He does allow himself a little leeway – the conversation with the young, African American kid playing a video game called “Gangsta” or the way a Sikh hostage is treated when he is released – because he’s wearing a turban (that five years after 9/11 people still couldn’t tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims is amazing – and they still cannot today, although, of course, they still hate them). But Lee doesn’t dwell here – he makes his point, and moves on quickly. He doesn’t let the pacing flag.
The last act of the movie – the part that plays out after the robbery is over – is perhaps the most interesting to me. It’s still a genre film – as Frazier is interviewing everyone to try and figure out what happened – but it’s packed with subtext that makes it a little deeper, a little more fascinating. Frazier is a black cop – so is his partner (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) – and he knows how he is perceived, especially as the investigation brings him into contact with people in Madeline’s world – people who are open minded and liberal, until the black guy pushes their buttons a little. The final act of the film asks the same basic question that Lee had been asking basically since Girl 6 a decade earlier – what exactly are you willing to do for money? At what price will you sell your soul?
The film works as a straight ahead thriller. Washington, Owen, Foster, Plummer and the supporting cast (who is filled with actors overqualified for their roles, like Ejiofor or Willem Dafoe) all do their jobs, and do it well. The robbery is, of course, more than a little unbelievable, but we kind of expect that in these sorts of films, and Lee handles it better than most. The film is something that Lee hadn’t really made before – or since for that matter: an audience pleaser. But there’s more here than that, and it elevates the whole movie to a level that most studio genre films like it. For example, answer me this question: For all the talk about the $140,000 Frazier was accused of stealing, for all the denials he issues throughout the film, does the movie ever, explicitly prove he didn’t take it? And what is he going to do with what he finds in his pocket at the end? And what does that say about him – and us in the audience watching him?

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