"Inside Man" is a decided change of pace for filmmaker Spike Lee (2002's "25th Hour
")more commercially viable, bigger-budgeted, and although the themes of race, ethnicity and bigotry play a part in the proceedings, the central plotting isn't dictated by it. Whether these differences from Lee's norm make for a better film is another story. A bank heist drama at heart, "Inside Man" switches things up by making the robbers' purpose about something more than just money, but the picture as a whole never makes it out of first gear. The plot mechanics and its eventual pileup of revelations and twists simply creak along, going through the tedious motions.
Director Spike Lee and first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz waste no time at the onset in setting things up, but then waste a ridiculous amount of time during a long-winded third act that doesn't seem like it will ever end. When mastermind thief Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his cronies take over a Manhattan bank and hold all of its workers and customers hostage, police detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are promptly sent down to try and handle the situation. As Keith works to open a line of communication and trust between himself and Dalton, another key figure enters the equation in the form of Madeleine White (Jodie Foster). A cool and calculating power broker with a hidden agenda, Madeleine has been instructed by well-respected branch owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to retrieve a safe deposit box from the bank, the contents of which could destroy his career and reputation if they ever went public.
The rousing, stylish opening credits sequence played brilliantly to the classic Bollywood song "Chaiyya Chaiyya" suggests an added level of inspiration at work that never makes itself known again. The film's first half, which plays in a more conventional crime thriller mode, recalls countless other movies about bank robberies, particularly 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon" (which even gets a direct reference at one point). The latter half takes a less orthodox turn, if only because it becomes clear that Dalton has more important fish to fry than just being a run-of-the-mill robber. This story development, which should be kept in the dark for review purposes, had the capabilities to explore some lofty subject matter in thought-provoking ways, but only scratches the surface and feels like a throwaway plot device.
One of the most damaging mistakes "Inside Man" makes is to have the central dilemma interspersed with interrogation scenes taking place after the fact. Because it is known that basically everyone gets out of the dangerous situation okay, all potential suspense evaporates. All the more problematic is director Spike Lee's decision to treat all of the hostages as merely faces in the crowdnone are developed beyond stereotypes, and even as stereotypes they aren't likableand the three main characters as people who you would want to cross the street to avoid. The protagonist, one supposes, is Detective Keith Frazier, but even he is smarmy in his attitude and treats everyone else in a tastelessly belittling fashion.
Surprisingly, since the level of talent involved is top-shelf, the performances are a mixed bag. Denzel Washington (2004's "Man on Fire
") delivers one of his most uneven and uncharismatic turns in memory as Keith Frazier. Washington, who usually is able to bring depth and unforced emotion to his roles without seeming to try, is such a bore here that it hardly feels like he is onscreen even when the camera is directly in front of him. As antagonist of the hour Dalton Russell, Clive Owen (2005's "Derailed
") plays suave, cocky and deranged as well as anyone working today, but there's no meat to his character. Owen never appears as if he is doing what he is doing because he believes it, but because he has been instructed to by the screenplay.
Running circles around her male co-stars, Jodie Foster (2005's "Flight Plan
") somehow manages to carnivorously chew up the scenery and remain low-key at the same time. Her Madeleine White is a morally questionable, passive-aggressive snake, and it is a delight to see Foster in a role that is less heroic, if no less strong-willed, than her other characters of late. It's too bad that Madeleine, like everyone else, never moves beyond single dimension.
"Inside Man," even with Spike Lee's out-of-place stylistic tendency to occasionally shoot actors as if they were floating rather than walking, isn't a technically incompetent film. It is, however, muddily constructed, needlessly overlong, and grindingly mediocre. The climax, which passes its expiration date by at least twenty minutes, doesn't just spell out every surprise plot turn, but italicizes and underlines them too, and then puts to use a yellow highlighter for solid measure. It becomes too much of an already-redundant, not-so-good thing, especially since there isn't a character from beginning to end to care one iota about. Much like 2005's vastly overrated "A History of Violence
," "Inside Man" puts up a false pretense that it is about more than it really is. Instead, it's just a shallow, wishy-washy waste of some potentially provocative core ideas.