Sunday, April 02, 2006

Adam catches the Inside Man
I like Spike Lee. I like his movies. I even like his personality, in spite of his occasional abbrasiveness.
Spike's a director I've long enjoyed and admired, though he hasn't knocked me on my ass since Do the Right Thing, which was waaaaaaaaaaay back in 1989. It's a brilliant movie, well written in spite of its prejudices (or perhaps even because of them). And it's the most well-paced, simmering story of urban rage boiling over ever made. Even if Mookie is making all kinds of mistakes at the climax of the movie, we all understand why he throws that trash can through the window. It's a great story about humanity, and it's probably still the best movie about racism and prejudice since Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?.
Like I said, I like Spike. And while he's become downright prolific in the last ten years, he's had the same failing over and over again. Spike has let his characters go on virulent racist diatribes about every other ethnic group but their own in pretty much every movie (in fact, it's an important framing device in Do the Right Thing) he's made. It's an honesty thing. I understand that.
But, important as improving relations between ethnicities and social classes are, it's not the only purpose of storytelling. And, frankly, it was long since getting tired when it was coming from Spike Lee. We get it, Spike. We really do. One movie would have done it. You got your point across.
Someone seems to have gotten that point across to Spike. At one point in his latest release, Inside Man, Denzel Washington's Detective Frazier silences a subordinate before he can go on an off-color rampage about the ethnicities he doesn't like. The sergeant he reprimands apologizes and acknowledges that his hatred is irrational, though he does attempt to explain it.
Yes, I know Spike didn't write this movie (Russell Gerwitz did). But, it's a moment that was long in the coming in Lee's catalog -- the black man takes charge not by epithets, but by charisma and authority. If this truly signals a sea change in Spike's movies, I think he's going to become an even better storyteller.
Detective Frazier is a good cop. He's had some trouble in the past, including a very recent investigation over some missing money from a drug bust. He's smart enough to know where he stands in department politics, and he's bright enough to make those little intuitive leaps that make him a great investigator.
Denzel Washington fills Frazier's shoes with the easy grace of a guy who truly is one of the finest actors living today. He melts into the role easily, but he seems to do that every time he's in a film. Even when he's in a dog of a movie (John Q, The Siege, The Bone Collector, Fallen, Virtuousity, Philadelphia, The Preacher's Wife), Washington shines. He's a movie star, yes. But he's also a really great actor. He was Pvt Trip in Glory, fer cryin' out loud. And Bleek Gilliam in Mo' Better Blues (his first collaboration with Spike Lee). And Malcolm X in the biopic of the same name. In fact, I can't think of a time I've seen Washington phone one in. He brings his A game to the plate every time he walks onto a set. Very few actors working today can claim the same.
Frazier never actually sees the face of his adversary, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). Dalton unmasks to speak to the audience periodically, but otherwise keeps his mug under wraps. It's part of his plan -- a perfect plan, he tells us -- to rob the Manhattan Trust and get away with it, even walking out the front door right under the noses of the police. Now, he's speaking to us from a tiny cell, but he assures us that it IS a perfect plan.
Now, Dalton has an ulterior motive. And he's got things better planned out than even the audience can anticipate. He's a dozen steps ahead of the police before they show up, and he just keeps extending his lead on them.
Dalton HAS planned the perfect bank robbery. He has the staff and customers dressed up just like his partners in crime -- so if the cops decide to come in, they can't tell who's who. And he's got a handle on everything the police are going to do. He's highly educated, fiercely intelligent, and motivated more than we know initially.
Owen has been nothing short of fantastic lately, with the lone exception of the recent (and utterly awful) King Arthur. No amount of acting skill could save him from the train wreck that was that 'reimagining' of Arthurian legend. Sure, he should have played Bond (he's that damned badass and suave). But, I'd rather see him out in the world actually ACTING. Up against both Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, Clive Owen proves he's got the goods.
Yeah, Jodie Foster's involved here, too. Her character is an attorney of some note in New York City. Madeline White has made a career out of having the right friends -- and having favors owed to her by the elite. When she's engaged to protect some valuable property in the bank, she worms her way into Frazier's investigation...and then the bank itself.
Frazier has no choice but to cooperate when the mayor shows up with White in tow and orders him to show her every courtesy. He's already in deep with Internal Affairs over that missing money. And, besides, she offers to help fast track his career a little bit (which, if she's leading the mayor around by the short hairs, she can do).
Everyone has an agenda in Inside Man. Each of the lead characters is pulling a work on the other two, and no quarter is given in this tense battle of wits. The question is -- who's truly conning who here, and how is Dalton gonna get out of the bank?
The story fades in and out as Frazier and his partner Detective Mitchell (the chameleon-like Chiwetel Ejiofor) attempt to piece together what happened in the bank -- and who the robbers actually are among the dozens of people they've captured in the robbers' uniforms.
Russell keeps popping in from his cell to remind the audience about his brilliant plan. His asides are to confuse and obfuscate, of course, but he does tell the audience everything, confident that nobody -- not the cops, not the bank, not Ms White, and certainly not the audience -- is going to figure out what he did and how he got away with it.
I actually DID figure it out. But, I made a couple really lucky guesses, and an intuitive leap or two that seemed to fly directly in the face of logic. I got really, really lucky.
Inside Man is as smart as Dalton's plot. The movie's constructed in such a way that everyone is a suspect. Maybe even the cops themselves (there is that omnipresent problem with that missing money, after all...). Gerwitz's script dangles all the right clues around you, with just enough stage magic and misdirection to fool even the most dilligent viewer. And with the expert direction of Mr Spike Lee, the magic tricks work better than an Swiss watch.
Of course, the acting is top notch -- with as many people running around as this movie has, it's remarkably focussed on its lead triumvirate. The three leads receive a lot of help from an excellent supporting cast that includes Ejiofor, Christopher Plummer and Willem Dafoe. Inside Man is a return to form for Jodie Foster (last seen in 2005's absurdly craptacular Flightplan) and a great showcase for Owen's cool and Washington's easy grace.
The film could have been your typical summer release blockbuster. But, it went a different route -- truly focussing on the game of wits between three very intelligent and capable people. It's a new take on the heist genre, and a refreshing change of pace for Spike Lee's career as a stoyteller. Good stuff.

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