Inside Man

Final Grade: B-

Bank heists have been grist for the movie mill for almost as long as there have been movies. With such a long history, any movie in this genre that wants to stand out must choose its path with care to avoid becoming just another in a long tradition of cheap bank robbery flicks. Enter Inside Man, a moderately successful addition to the heist family brought to us by Spike Lee.

Denzel Washington plays Detective Keith Frazier (with a ‘z’ as he puts it), a New York cop who must step up to the plate and pinch hit when a hostage situation develops at a local bank and the detective who normally would direct the police response is away. Frazier is eager for a chance to prove himself, as he has been implicated in a check cashing swindle by a drug lord trying to reduce his sentence. With his friend and colleague Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) supporting him, Frazier assumes command of the police barricade outside the bank.

At first playing it by the book, Frazier begins to suspect that this robbery is not what it seems. The heist leader played by Clive Owen, exhibits behavior that Frazier can’t quite figure out, but he is sagacious enough to know that there is something more than a robbery and a demand for an airplane going on here. When Jodie Foster’s Madeliene White enters the picture asking to meet with the heist leader, with the full support of the New York mayor who is coy as to his reasons, Frazier becomes even more curious and determined to solve the mystery and save the hostages.

The research that went in to Inside Man pays dividends via the attention to detail which the director gives to the scenes involving police procedure. We are drawn in by the resulting realism. This same attention to detail is given to the various characters, even the small parts, making them real people in a real world rather than simply the next clone bit part that spends minimal time on screen. It is during these small moments, especially during the first half, when the film works best.

The larger structure of which these details are a part is more problematic. Though the movie starts well, with a careful pace that takes its time to develop but never stops moving forward, it loses steam later on. The second part of the movie is almost an entirely different movie; It is has the same characters, but suddenly the plot has changed and even the genre is a bit different. It becomes lopsided; the streamlined story which we, having developed an internal clock from many years of watching movies, figure is ready for the last intense drive towards the climax, suddenly teases us. The climax is more of a fizzle, and suddenly an entirely new story begins related to the previous one but ultimately different. If this last bit of the movie had moved with a faster, more insistent pace Lee might have gotten away with it. A desperate race against time could well have carried over the momentum and made the non-climax forgivable, or even understandable as a necessary part of a story moving towards a true climax. Regrettably the film moves instead at a tempo that, though it does not bore, frustrates.

Other than that, there are some minor quibbles. The music is carefully chosen as a motif to go along with certain characters, but it does not always fit in well. Jodie Foster’s character, though well acted, is ultimately not vitally important to the story. Her part sits right in the middle of needing to be cut and needing more impact in the story to better justify itself.

Still there is too much that is good about the movie to criticize it too severely. The acting is uniformly good, and there are scenes which by themselves are interesting, and especially during the first half they are part of an appealing whole. The clash of characters and distinct personalities is generally satisfying, and the movie does manage a plot which is clever enough to distinguish it from the other bank robbery films. The secret motive of the bank robbers is at first a compelling mystery, and when it’s revealed it proves to be worthy of the build up, though the movie might have been better served by leaving it shrouded in mystery longer than it did.

All in all, the film is well made. It entertains enough that a second viewing at some point in the future would not be an unpleasant proposition, but let’s hope that it does not prove to be among the absolute best of 2006.

The Upside:
The story starts out well, the acting is good, and there is commendable attention to detail.
The Downside:
The structure of the story feels unbalanced, cheating us of a lean, tense story with a knock out climax. Foster’s character should have either been more central to the story or cut.
On the Side:
Inside Man largely goes where Dog Day Afternoon has gone before, and even references the Sydney Lumet feature from 1975.

Breaking Down the Film:
The Story: C+
The Acting: B
Behind the Scenes: B-

Film Stats:
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster
Directed by: Spike Lee
Writing Credits: Russell Gewirtz
Release Date: March 24, 2006
Country: USA
MPAA Rating: R for Language and some violent images.
Run Time: 129 min.
Studio: Univeral

Technorati: Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Bank Robbery, Clive Owen, Spike Lee, Inside Man, Movie, Film, Drama, Cinema, Suspense, Entertainment, Hollywood