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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Spike Lee's Inside Man

Denzel Washington and Clive Owen in Spike Lee's Inside ManPrior to writing this review, my friend Sebastian told me that he had just read about (or heard) an interesting commentary about Inside Man, and that's about every single Spike Lee film sharing a common theme: Power. (My initial guess was racism, or 'white people are bad’, or 'white vs. black'… but then, I was affected by the Talkback section in Ain't It Cool News's film review).

Unfortunately for me, I haven’t actually seen that many Spike Lee films, in fact, He Got Game is the only one I’ve seen (my credibility is immediately destroyed in the eyes of my visitors with this confession), which has Denzel Washington and NBA star Ray Allen in it. But I’ve always been given the impression that Spike Lee films are generally edgy modest-budget productions with one or two big-name cast member attached and take place usually in New York (but then, that's because I haven't seen that many Spike Lee films). I didn’t know a single thing about Inside Man until I saw its poster (and then, the trailer)

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster in a heist film? With Willem Defoe (who had always been cool when I try to block Boondock Saints from my memory) and Christopher Plummer (I wonder how many normal filmgoers who see him in a film nowadays know that he’s the dad in Sound of Music?) too? My misadventures as a badboy filmmaking who constantly fights the system must have probably distracted myself too much.

Heist films have always been fun to watch, although they annoy me with their usual gimmick. There is always some high tech hacker who easily hacks into the bank database, goes into some half-baked technobabble that have audiences laughing even though they don’t know why, and allowing our courageous heroes to march right into their intended target and liberate it from its wealth. These are the heist films from the thieves’ point of view (you know, stuff like Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job etc.). And of course, there are other films which are told from the police’s point of view, usually in a cop thriller/action movie, where the hero has to thwart the plans of a bunch of highly-intelligent (usually European) thieves, and that despite the odds being stacked against the cops, the thieves would usually screw up badly in the third act (they become uncharacteristically dumb) and end up being defeated.

Yet this film, as Sebastian pointed out, is one of those rare films where you cheer for both the cop (come on, he’s Denzel Washington, even when he’s a bad guy in Training Day, people still love him enough to give him an Oscar) and the thief (and he’s Clive Owen, who is so badass in Closer and those BMW short films that I might even consider watching King Arthur someday). This film is about power, a power struggle between Denzel (the hostage negotiator) and Willem Defoe (the captain in charge of the case) during their initial meeting, and also about how Denzel, Clive and Jodie's characters are constantly involved in a game of one-upmanship.

Here's the synopsis: Four people dressed in painters' outfits march into the busy lobby of Manhattan Trust, a cornerstone Wall Street Branch of a worldwide financial institution. Within seconds, the costumed robbers led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) place the bank under a surgically planned siege, and the 50 patrons and staff become unwitting pawns in an airtight heist. NYPD hostage negotiators Detectives Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played the uber-cool Operative in the vastly underrated Serenity, my review here) are dispatched. Meanwhile, the head of the bank's Board of Directors (Christopher Plummer) wants to make sure that a safety deposit box in the bank will remain a secret, thus he hires Madeliene White (Jodie Foster) to broker a deal with Dalton Russell, to the annoyance of the cops placed in charge of the case.

What began as a generic heist film became increasingly complex. Not just a standard cops-and-robbers film, it evolved into a love letter for New York, showcasing its diverse and colourful culture (the many bit players in the film left quite an impression, even though their appearances were brief), and some sort of a social commentary (like a scene where a child of a hostage was playing an ultraviolent Grand Theft Auto-like video game, to the discomfort of Dalton). The film alternates between the taking of the bank, and to its aftermath (flashforwards instead of flashbacks, I guess), where hostages were interviewed by Keith and Bill. We know that the hostages are safe, but then the case itself remains unsolved, and thanks to the cunning bank robbers, we will realize what a complicated case the detectives had in their hands.

But like I said, I'm surprised how well Spike Lee had pulled this off. Pretty much reinforces my opinion that most fine directors are the ones who start out making small-budget films, and then work their way up from there. Some might not be able to handle such a transition, but those who can are usually the best directors I can think of working in Hollywood right now. Otherwise, those who are given a massive budget to play with in their debut features will most probably end up like, well, Michael Bay.

Good acting, intriguing twisty plot, nice directing. I think it's one hell of a film. Possibly the best 2006 film thus far for me (and critics in the entire US agree, as it's the second best-reviewed wide release film this year in Rottentomatoes). My next film to see will be V Is For Vendetta.

Watch some other people review the film:

Here's a trailer of the film.

Other reviews of the film: Cinematical | Wholesome Goodness | Emanuel Levy | Roger Ebert

As usual, if you've reviewed the film too, post your URL to the review here.