Eric D. Snider

Inside Man

There is so little to "Inside Man" that it barely warrants a full-length review. It's a bank-robbery movie, and an entertaining one, but that's all it is. It makes no bold claims at originality. It has a couple of moderately nifty surprises. It goes on a little too long -- it's directed by Spike Lee, who has never made a movie that didn't go on a little too long -- and then it ends. You go home satisfied -- but not blown away -- and the movie never crosses your mind again.

In its basic scenario, it resembles "Dog Day Afternoon" so much that one of the characters mentions it. Masked gunmen dressed in painters' jumpsuits enter a Manhattan bank and take all the customers and employees hostage, locking them in offices and forcing them to put on identical masks and coveralls. Why? So that when the police finally get in, they won't be able to tell the perps from the victims.

The robbers are led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), whose face we see very little of except in a flash-forward that begins the film, where he sits in some kind of cell and tells us about the perfect bank robbery he planned. We see even less of his companions, gradually figuring out who they are only when we see everyone -- bad guys and hostages alike -- being interviewed by police after the siege in an attempt to figure out who belongs to which group.

The lead negotiator on the hostage crisis is Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), a good cop who's under Internal Affairs investigation for a batch of money that went missing after a drug bust. He's an expert negotiator, but he soon realizes that Dalton Russell is, too. The robbers have done their homework. They know what the cops are going to try before they try it.

Meanwhile, the head of the bank, a smooth old billionaire named Arthur Kane (Christopher Plummer), hires the services of one Madeliene White (Jodie Foster), a woman of indeterminate means who is the sort of person you call when you have a very delicate situation that needs to be handled discreetly. To wit, Kane has something in one of the safety deposit boxes in this very bank branch whose secrecy he needs to ensure at all costs. Why would the head of a huge bank keep his valuables in a deposit box at one of the branches, rather than in, say, his own private vault somewhere? It doesn't make sense to me either, but here we are.

With a screenplay by first-timer Russell Gewirtz, this is one of the few joints directed by Spike Lee that he did not write or co-write himself. Rest assured, there is still some of Lee's usual racial tension and sexism -- most of the women in the film are identified either by their breast size or their voracious sexual appetites -- but his knack for eye-catching visuals and strong camerawork are evident, too.

And it's fine, you know? I have no qualms about recommending it as a good, solid crime thriller, and nothing more. It might be interesting to pursue the question of why Lee is wasting his time on a standard-issue genre flick -- it's sort of like Martin Scorsese directing a "Final Destination" movie -- but really, I don't think the film warrants that kind of scrutiny.

Grade: B

Rated R, a lot of harsh profanity, some brief very strong violence

2 hrs., 7 min.

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