Published on June 29th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Lazy Sunday Rewatch – Inside Man
This weekend, we take a look at Spike Lee’s 2006 heist thriller. The film is a rare example of rooting for both the cops and robbers.
Ask yourself this question: how many crime films have you seen where you find yourself equally rooting for the good guys and the bad guys? And how many crimes films have you seen in which the bad guys get away with it, yet the good guys still get justice? I’m assuming not many.
What Inside Man does best is complicate the idea of who really is a good guy and a bad guy. Spike Lee’s 2006 heist flick looks like a pretty straightforward heist procedural on paper. But that’s hardly more than a clever little ingenue, misdirecting the audience into thinking their seeing a different movie. The set-up is all too simple: Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has a plan for the perfect bank robbery. Detective Keith Frazer (Denzel Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are assigned the case when Dalton infiltrates a Manhattan bank and takes its patrons hostage. It sets itself up as a typical cat-and-mouse affair, a self-referential Dog Day Afternoon with a sleek exterior.
But the enduring charm of this movie lies within all its little dramatic smirks. The film’s opening scene features a monologue from our primary thief in which he devilishly taunts the audience, telling us that his plan is perfect, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it unfolds. This cold open calmly cracks the fourth wall without fully breaking it. As an audience member, your curiosity is now primed for the thieves to dazzle you. You’re already kind of rooting for them.
But wait; this is a Denzel Washington movie, right? His detective character comes furiously but confidently riding in to administer the hostage negotiation and diffuse the situation. He’s a rather cocky SOB, but at the end of the day, he’s Denzel, so it’s impossible not to grin when he weaponizes his signature swagger. Detective Frazier sees his big chance at making Class A Detective and is taking advantage of the situation just as much as Dalton is. So we’re on both sides here; we’re rooting for the bank robbers because we need to see this perfect plan take shape. But we’re also rooting for Denzel to get his man. And neither of these oppositional figures are exactly altruistic in their actions.
This kind of set-up seems like a one-way ticket to a dusty narrative corner, but Spike Lee and screenwriter Russell Gewirtz have a plan almost as audacious as the thieves in the film. They have a plan to pull off the perfect heist movie.
The biggest issue that emerges is the matter of the antagonist. Who are we rooting against? Who or what is the film positioning us to despise? Well, it would be a spoiler to tell you exactly, but in essence, the answer comes down to the same thing most of Lee’s films have investigated: power, corruption, and racism. The owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer) has some secrets located in his safety deposit box that he needs to protect. So he hires Madelaine White (Jodie Foster), a pricey fixer, to procure some damning documents. We don’t entirely know what those documents contain at first, but nevertheless, it is clear that the vested interests of rich, powerful men are precisely what the film is setting itself up against. The film very conscientiously establishes the social hierarchies involved with crime and punishment, specifically who law enforcement are really defending in a situation like this.
Additionally, this seemingly socio-politically benign thriller manages to work some riveting layers of subtext into its recipe. The film deals with police brutality, racial profiling, capitalist ideology all with a very measured level of didacticism. Lee populates the film with a bunch of quintessentially New York moments of austerity, greed, and prejudice that seem to congeal around the whole affair. Like a Sikh hostage who is mistaken for a perp and has his turban removed while being brutalized. Another powerful shot involves a black hostage pleading with police to let him go for fear of being framed for the crime. It doesn’t exactly become clear until the end of the film what all these little sobering moments are working up to, but when the socially-relevant core comes into focus, those moments really emerge as adding dimension to this quasi-procedural.
But for the bulk of the film, Washington and Owen carry it with their entertaining, high-stakes game of wits. The film needs you to believe that it’s a very straightforward and conventional film, yet also needs you to like both sides of the confrontation. This strange dichotomy is really only balanced by way of assured characterizations that make the very arduous process of robbing/rescuing a bank extremely watchable. The tension builds as the hostage situation unravels. The film hypnotizes us into thinking that the robbers could actually kill the hostages, on top of the very convincing prospect of Denzel piecing together something so brilliant that it will blow the whole thing wide open.
Lee really knows how to build tension. He probably hasn’t gotten the chance to flex this muscle too much in his filmography, but here he shows a fantastic ability to maintain poise while still adding personal stylistic flourishes. A personal favorite involves a semi-surreal shot of Denzel supernaturally hovering towards the bank out of desperation. The film also takes on a kind of elliptical narrative structure in which we occasionally flash forward to days after the heist in which the two detectives are interviewing all the hostages. It adds even more jagged pieces to the puzzle, but the way it is shot makes it all feel very controlled.
You get the sense with every cut that Spike is playing us rather than spinning his wheels. Everything specifically plays to the audience, every pan, every dolly, every cut. He tosses temporal realism to the side and says “fuck it; let’s mess with everybody.” In this sense, the film is playing us the way the robbers play the cops. Lee makes it very easy to give the film some leeway without totally knowing its direction. Because at the end of the day, when we see a movie like Inside Man, we want to be messed with. We want the big twist; we want the grand finale to be genuinely surprising. This movie’s approach to this is to be so simple that it comes across as coy.
So if you’re bored tonight, try seeking out Inside Man. It’s got a few stretches in logic, but it renders those stretches inconsequential by nature of its skillful con job. It makes the conventional parts endlessly entertaining while still satiating the desire for twists and turns. And, surprisingly enough, Lee finds a way to work in a very potent and prescient statement on the lingering influences of racism and greed in the hearts of powerful men. It’s a rare film that has its cake and eats it too. Both the detectives’ and the robbers’ hard work pays off. And, in the end, justice ends up looking pretty different from your standard hostage stand-off.