Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Inside Man (2006)

Dir. Spike Lee
Writ. Russell Gewirtz
w/ Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, and Willem Dafoe

Whomever had the job of showing Denzel Washington the script for the first time must've left the actor's side, ears ringing with voluptuously bell-like peals of laughter. Gewirtz's story gives us Frazier, a detective under investigation for a missing sum, enough to buy a Staten Island condo. He then lands the negotiation of a hostage crisis in the middle of the Manhattan financial district, a chance to prove worthy of command that he and his eager partner both jump at with zeal; however, the robber has already told us in all confidence at the beginning of the film that he has planned the most brilliant, perfect robbery, leaving little doubt in the audience's mind that all will go according to plan. Ah, and therein lies the rub. We like Frazier within seconds and want to see him win the day, but Gewirtz has also cleverly circumvented the pitfall of the genre by taking away every question but the "how?" In short, Washington got handed all the elements of a perfect role, where the outcome becomes a minor point at the very start, and the journey to it excites all the more, because it's the only thing that matters.

Politically charged yet witty, the filmworld's angriest auteur may actually have been prescribed this script by his therapist. What it renders for posterity in terms of interracial content it also winks at with the humor necessary for anyone wishing to remain a long-term citizen of America's most stressed-out boilerpot of a city. No stranger these days to suave machismo, Washington steps into this sweet spot of a role designed to supply an African-American actor the same ethos as a Serpico or a Michael Corleone, a Columbo or a Sam Spade -- only black and beautiful. And Washington executes Frazier with gusto, aware of the detective's limitations, but spot-on with the attitude and persona peculiar to a man trying to make pay-grade in a city police force that's suffered in the public eye. He even infuses a mild accent into the role to make things more fun. It might make you want to shout, "Hey, Washington, your Brooklyn's showing, Baby!" in the middle of the theatre.

Lee suitably makes no show of humility when presenting the Big Apple. Loud music, an Indian melody overlaying an invincible rap beat, takes us into the heart of the action and sets the tone fairly aptly. Russell Gerwitz's tight script blends the New York vernacular of "Giuliani Time" with a sense of poor showmanship that must be overcome. The synthesis makes for a heist movie that leaves the audience with a slightly new take on the genre; Matthew Libatique's now-expert photography takes up any slack that may have been leftover. With a license to return to basic student film techniques, he uses effective jump cuts and 360 degree panning, not to mention a great instinct for knowing when to shoot from outside of a room rather than inside. Armed these days with a higher budget and the eternal confidence of carte blanche on a Spike Lee joint, Pi and Requiem for a Dream credits tucked long under his belt, his style works beautifully, and in waves that separate each act distinctly yet elegantly.

One of the more impressive feats of the film, Clive Owen's turn as the mastermind, overcomes the basic challenge of characterization without much interaction through subtle writing and innovations in presenting a robbery. This script offers unusuality in such a way that the actor's work deals mostly in being completely full of himself, as at the opening when Owen stares down the camera to deliver a monologue brimming with detached triumph and worthy of Olivier.

Artistic elements aside for a moment, though, Lee possesses an incredible knack for timeliness. Although the characters portrayed in Inside Man are fictional, they are based on real-life figures. We've seen these people before. They're Madison Avenue Ivy Leaguers who live in the same city with beat cops without ever mixing -- the shaken and changed who walk the streets below the penthouses of the indifferent and uninterested. They're the citizens of a city without a common identity but which struggles to find one in the post-9/11 world.

Although this film remains Washington's chance to swagger and shine, Lee doesn't take the New York out of the New York. Tensions and paradoxes shade Inside Man with nuance and talking points, as if the director were lifting up a bit of the grid, placing it into our palms, and asking, if we were to live here, what the hell would we do? It's a damned good question, Lee. In a world where bank heists of perfect proportions will always be a work of fiction, it's good to be reminded of what's real.

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October 05, 2007 3:24 PM  
Anonymous G.R. said...

One major quibble: Jodie Foster's character is more archetype than person so it's to her credit that she pulls it off as well as it does. However, don't let that deter you from enjoying one of the best movies of the year. I'm glad to see Spike Lee tackle another genre film. He brings a re-invigorating approach to what, in other hands, would be a tiresome rehash. That liveliness seems to have worked on him, too -- this is his best film in several years. Buy Discount DVD Movies, Cheap DVDs, Buy DVDs Online

March 25, 2010 1:27 AM  

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