"Inside Man"

Spike Lee evokes New York's grittier, edgier days -- and gives Jodie Foster her best role in years -- with this crisply made heist movie.

Published March 24, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

The real New York and the New York of the movies are often two vastly different places: Filmmakers sometimes lavish loving attention on certain locations and visuals -- the country-in-the-city greenery of Central Park, the Empire State Building's art deco spindle -- and still get the vibe entirely wrong. Even though the New York of 2006 is a very different one from the New York of 1976, when it comes to putting New York on-screen, gritty, edgy and, yes, rude,are still considered crucial buzzwords. Maybe that's because, while the lower crime rate and a cleaned-up Times Square make for a far more manageable city experience (for tourists and residents alike), as moviegoers we can't help feeling nostalgia for the old New York, the dirtier, more dangerous one, that made for so many great movies of the '70s -- pictures like "Taxi Driver," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico."

With "Inside Man" -- an ostensibly straightforward, old-fashioned heist movie -- Spike Lee brings together the old New York and the new. He has a feel for the city that relatively few other filmmakers do, a knack for capturing not just the things people say to each other and the way they say them, but the way the city seems to be carried -- maybe even powered -- by the rhythm of their overlapping sentences: That symphony of speech is the city's greatest source of vitality. Lee marries his vision of the city the way it is now with a fondness for the way the movies were then. "Inside Man" isn't your typical modern cop thriller, with lots of noisy shootouts and rapid-fire choppy cutting. It consists, mostly, of people just talking to each other, the sort of movie that shows the kind of energy and attention to detail that, say, Sidney Lumet brought to "Dog Day Afternoon," one of Lee's inspirations for this picture.

Lee practically hands us the ending of "Inside Man" at the very beginning. But no matter how closely you watch, or how clever you think you're being, you'll never pick it up. As master thief Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) calls it in the movie's opening scene, this is the story of the perfect bank robbery -- but one in which no money is stolen. Russell and a gang of anonymous baddies, disguised as lowly painters in work clothes, quietly storm a New York bank, one of the older, classier ones, with art deco friezes and the kind of elegant marble lobby that makes people want to save money rather than spend it. Russell and his gang order everyone to the floor, and, after shutting down the bank, bully their hostages into first handing over their cellphones and then stripping down to their underwear. The robbers then make a special request of their hostages (I won't tell you what it is) and then herd them, in groups, into several locked offices. Then they get to work.

Denzel Washington is Keith Frazier, the detective who, with his partner, Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has been assigned to the case. Christopher Plummer plays Arthur Case, a creepy captain of industry (with beautiful manners, of course) who fears that the bank heist will force his darkest secret into the open. And so he hires one mysterious, chilly chick, Madeline White (Jodie Foster) -- her job is never clearly defined, but she's sort of a high-class Ms. Fixit for the ultra-rich -- to negotiate with the robbers: One of the movie's sly little jokes is the way it runs with the notion that the Arthur Cases and Madeline Whites of the world assume that bank robbers will be happy to listen to what they have to say, simply because of who they are.

I've already read reviews of "Inside Man" that give away far too much, as if the only way to capture what's good about the picture is to fixate on the nuts and bolts of its plot. The picture is very crisply made. This is a mainstream entertainment designed for that forgotten movie audience, grown-ups who have brains. Written by Russell Gewirtz, the picture takes turns you never expect, without throwing in a 101 dumb red herrings (although there are a few clever ones).

But as with so many movies set in, and about, New York, the plot is just a convenient device to bring an entertaining jumble of characters together. Lee has always been interested in exploring the tensions between people of different races, to the extent that by the mid-'90s he'd become predictably, and tiresomely, dogmatic. But "25th Hour," a tough but tender love letter to his native city, suggests that 9/11 sparked a change in him: Putting black-white relations under a microscope no longer seemed to interest him; suddenly, united against an enemy outsider, we had no choice but to get along.

Lee's eyes and ears are open to everything the crazy-quilt patchwork of New York has to offer. He sees the way people in the city often cede grudging respect to their neighbors, even when those neighbors annoy the hell out of them. Russell and Frazier are the linchpins of "Inside Man," the characters who need to work hard to fully understand each other in order to "get along." Washington gives an easygoing, casual performance, which is his best kind: He's an intelligent, astute actor, though sometimes a self-conscious one. His line readings here have just the right amount of snap, and he knows how to suggest the hostile or wary undercurrents that sometimes flow beneath seemingly benign encounters.

"Inside Man" cuts backward and forward, so that even though much of the action takes place in and around the bank where the hostages are being held, we also see Frazier and Mitchell questioning them after their release. None of the hostages, for reasons that will become clear if you see the movie, can be presumed innocent, so Frazier grills them mercilessly. In one scene, he and Mitchell pressure one of the released hostages, a Sikh, to give them as much information as he can. He's upset because his turban has been removed, and his religious beliefs demand that his head be covered. Frazier tries to settle him down and soften him up, and the two end up bantering about the kind of indignities people are forced to suffer in a city like New York. Frazier sinks the last ball right in the pocket: "I bet you can get a cab, though."

Frazier doesn't spare even the older, exceedingly proper Jewish lady, Miriam (played by Marcia Jean Kurtz, who also played a character with the same name in "Dog Day Afternoon" -- just one of the movie's affectionate nods toward its forebears). Miriam keeps insisting she knows nothing about the bank robbers -- she pushes back against Frazier's questioning with forthright good humor, but she's rattled by her recent trauma and just wants to go home. Frazier makes her think he's done with her, treating her to one of his most soothing smiles and saying, "All right, my dear," as if to dismiss her. When she gets up to leave, he jumps at her with another question -- and then settles back into his chair, claiming he's only fooling with her. The moment is funny, but it's also a little tense, for the way Frazier lets us, and Miriam, know that he's in complete control.

Because Owen is playing a bank robber who doesn't want to reveal his identity to his captors, he spends most of the movie with his face hidden behind dark glasses and a tube of white jersey pulled up past his nose, Bazooka Joe-style. (Actually, he looks more like Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man.") Even though it's a shame to cover up one of greatest faces in contemporary movies -- Owen's is a mug of great distinction -- the performance doesn't suffer: Owen uses his body and voice to drop clues about the character. Somehow, just by the way he carries himself, we get the sense that he's not just intimidating but also weirdly principled.

In one of his few scenes without the mask, he chats with the youngest hostage, a boy of about 9, as he fiddles with the kid's video game. He asks about the rules of the game -- it has something to do with blowing away as many of the other guys in the 'hood as you can -- and then moves on to reassure the kid that everything's going to be all right, that neither he nor his dad is going to be harmed. Then he adds, in the eerily even, calm voice he uses throughout the movie, "I have to talk to your dad about this video game."

But it's Foster who rules the movie like an ice queen. In her top-drawer Bergdorf Goodman suits and mile-high stilettos, with her hair pulled back into an iron-willed ponytail, she's so sleek, she's practically engineered. Her Madeline may look like a woman, but she's really a bird -- one of the chrome eagles that rule the roost on the Chrysler Building, looking down on the city with an air of proprietary ownership.

Madeline represents everything about the city that's hard and ruthless -- everything you can't have, everything you can never be. This is the best performance Foster has given in years, the one that (I hope) finally signals that she's arisen from the sleep chamber of dumb, worthy roles that she's been assigning herself for years now. Madeline is wound tight, but the performance is as relaxed as a stroll in the park: Foster is clearly having a blast as she quietly terrifies us.

"Inside Man" won't ever be considered one of the "great" Spike Lee movies: It's a well-made entertainment, the sort of thing that audiences generally treat as being far less serious than messagey pictures like "Crash." (Even though, in a sense, "Inside Man" is a movie that practices what "Crash" preaches: The necessity of recognizing our differences without allowing ourselves to be confined by them.) There are dozens of little touches in "Inside Man" that capture the craziness, the unexpected delights, of urban life, like the Albanian hottie (the actress who plays her is Florina Petcu) who's called in by the cops to serve as an impromptu Albanian-to-English translator. She's happy to help -- but first she hands Frazier a gold gift bag stuffed with parking tickets, which she naturally assumes he'll fix for her. And that, Lee recognizes, is the kind of give-and-take that this city demands. He is the inside man.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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