“Inside Man” is a cat and mouse game intended to explore the power of greed through the perfect crime. Directed by Spike Lee in what he considers one of the best heist movies since the 1970s, the story seems clever until all the twists and turns evaporate in a puff of “Oh, yeah, un huh, sure.” Considering the top-level cast that includes Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Willem Dafoe, it’s even more disappointing.
An actor, however, is only as good as the script by new screenwriter Russell Gewirtz and director.
Clive Owen plays the brilliant-minded bank robber Dalton Russell, and actually begins the film with a full facial close-up and a warning to the audience “to pay strict attention, because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself.” He and a team of four dressed as painters march into the huge bank in the city, right past a security guard and proceed to set up an apparatus on a counter that blocks out the security cameras with a flash of light. The only thing this improbable action revealed to me was that Owen would have made a great James Bond.
After guns are drawn, all the banks employees and customers are thrown to the ground and eventually taken to different rooms where they’re made to disrobe and put on coveralls, hoods and white masks - the same outfits worn by their captors.
Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) is a New York City cop presently in the doghouse. It seems cash from a drug bust has disappeared, and he’s under suspicion. So one wonders why he’s the one sent right out of the gate to investigate a bank robbery with possible hostages.
Tidbits of Frazier’s character are thrown in. Several scenes before he goes to investigate the robbery show him flirting with his sexy police officer partner. While they help explain who he is, these scenes are in the wrong place - right in the middle of the action - and not only counteract the urgency of the hostage situation, are not the traits of a supposedly tough New York City cop.
Washington is one of today’s best actors. Besides being talented, he has a charismatic demeanor that is played up too much in this film. He’s easy-going, playful and smooth in almost every scene rather than intense, focused and determined, and all that mollifies the urgency of the situation.
Frazier works out of a command post with fellow detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Dirty Pretty Things”) and police captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe, “Shadow of the Vampire”). Both actors have only minor roles and never get to exhibit their real talents.
Infused into this story is another element that really screams of “this could not happen.” As Frazier is facing the bank and plotting his next move, Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a well-tailored woman approaches him and wants to work with him. She’s a high-priced troubleshooter hired by New York’s elite to sort out their dirty laundry and make it disappear.
In this instance, her employer is influential business mogul and philanthropist Author Case (Christopher Plummer). It seems he has something in a safe deposit box inside the bank that mustn’t fall into the wrong hands, namely Russell’s.
Anyone who has ever seen real hostage situations knows that not only would a police officer never walk inside a bank unarmed to meet face to face with the criminal, which Frazier does, they certainly would not let an unarmed, unskilled private citizen do this as well.
But in this film, they do. Madeleine White uses some black-mailing schemes of her own through the police department to get what she wants, then marches right inside the bank to face her masked target. She explains what she wants to Russell, who confesses, in more cat and mouse word play games, that he already knows about the drawer with the highly valued item.
The only interesting part of this film is Clive Owens’ ability to make his character a standout, even cloaked in a work suit and mask and undistinguished from all the hostages. The fact that he would be fully obscured during most of the movie almost made Owen turn down the role.
“To play whole scenes where you’re masked,” he said, “and you’ve got on sunglasses and you’re wearing a hood is very weird, because a lot of acting is often through intent, and intent is shown through the eyes. To suddenly have that taken away and have this big barrier there was very disarming.”
There are some clever twists in “Inside Man” but when the end reveals that one simple act should have defused this situation, it deflates the entire drama and what, with a little tweaking, could have been a great movie.
“Inside Man” is playing at AMC La Jolla 12.