Title: Inside Man
Year: 2006
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Play time: 
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Russell Gewirtz
Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster

Like most Spike Lee joints, Inside Man is a tricky beast, though perhaps in a different way. Lee has dabbled in any number of things over the course of his long career, but I’ve never seen him work like this before, using familiar genre elements as sleight-of-hand to conceal something else. Lee surely set out to make a great heist film, but that’s not all.

Above all, this is a movie about complicity, the dominant notion being that everyone has a hand in something, whether they know it, are blissfully unaware, or actively deny it. Though Inside Man never makes it explicit, that theme, of course, resonates with Lee’s preeminent concern: race relations in this country. The racial overtones here are hard to miss, but but the film as a whole aims higher — or perhaps just broader. Here’s a movie that’s political in individual moments but universal when seen in its entirety.

It is also, as promised, a great heist flick. With an evocative Terrence Blanchard soundtrack and masterful command of the genre by Lee, the movie speeds along, unveiling its mystery with uncommon grace — at one point, the film abruptly begins a series of flash-forwards, and I liked the way Lee integrated them, leaving it to us to figure out their significance. The story turns out to be quite rewarding; the screenplay by Russell Gewirtz foreshadows a great deal (the title is a forehead-slapper of a clue) but gives away nothing.

The cast, too, is a pleasure, with a number of venerable stars turning in ace performances. Denzel Washington is as cool and loose-limbed here as he was in his Oscar-winning Training Day turn, all withering sarcasm (“Bad guys, here I come”) and a sort of bewildered confidence — he is not so much unflappable as resigned to whatever it is he has to do next. Jodie Foster sent chills down my spine as a ruthless corporate mercenary who has to “make sure certain interests are protected” and isn’t unwilling to walk into a live hostage situation to do it. And Clive Owen gets to glower at the camera and break the fourth wall; he’s having fun.

So much for the production values. They’re top-notch. But this is a Spike Lee joint down to his patented gently-spiralling-out-of-control last act, as Blanchard’s rousing orchestral score (d)evolves into wandering jazz lines and the movie accordingly ditches its narrative structure and gives us a weird sort of free-form conclusion. It is here that Lee makes clear what he is doing, as his characters frantically pass the buck, careers are “fast-tracked,” responsibility avoided. Inside Man‘s framing device — those flash-forwards I mentioned — speaks to this, as we watch people attacked with stereotypes, the police detectives engaging in a sort of intolerant shorthand meant to corner their poor, mostly innocent suspects — this, after Washington’s Detective Frazier chews out a Sergeant for adding some “color commentary” to a story from his past.

Lee delights in his mastery of the medium, working on several levels, toying with convention, turning clichés upside down. Inside Man is not the kind of strongly polarizing work that the filmmaker has done in the past, but that makes it no less significant. It’s a subtle tour de force.


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