As one of the rare independent filmmakers whose work from its earliest days earned critical acclaim and turned a pretty decent profit, Spike Lee for some time enjoyed a special position in contemporary American cinema. His most recent movies, however, pleased neither critics nor audiences, either flopping at the box office or traveling directly to cable television and DVD, without attracting much attention at all. Judging by his newest picture, Inside Man, he never allowed those failures to deter him, but instead somehow managed to acquire the financing to make what must be his biggest and most expensive film, a mainstream studio production in the grand Hollywood tradition.
An action genre picture, Inside Man simply by its very nature represents a significant departure for Lee, whose previous work generally examines in more ordinary settings the significant, volatile topic of race in America. Although it naturally and perhaps unavoidably deals with some more or less incidental racial issues, the movie's real subject evolves from its perfectly engaging surface plot into a somewhat ironic demonstration of the intricate manner in which powerful people manipulate others through subtle kinds of blackmail. By the time it ends, all the major characters possess some object or information that enables them to triumph.
The movie shows a familiar caper, a sort of blockbuster version of Dog Day Afternoon (which a character mentions), a carefully planned bank robbery involving a major hostage situation. Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, the cool, confident leader of a small group of thieves who enter a bank in lower Manhattan, disabling the electronic surveillance and tying up the customers and employees. Denzel Washington plays Keith Frazier, Russell's adversary, the hostage negotiator who must rescue the prisoners and persuade the army of policemen to hold off storming the bank and potentially harm innocent people.
While the movie settles into the usual standoff, the focus of action jumps around through a variety of points of view and several layers of chronology that complicate the narrative's essentially static situation. Because the criminals dress all the hostages in the same coveralls and masks that they wear, the police cannot identify their targets and may very well slaughter all the wrong people, a possibility shown in a hypothetical flash forward. In addition, as Frazier begins to realize, the robbers follow a most unusual and puzzling plan --- instead of working on a tight, tense timetable, they stall and hesitate, slowing down the negotiations and drawing out the time.
In addition to attempting to negotiate the release of the hostages and solve the puzzle of the criminals' methods and goals, the detective must cope with the interference of high-level politicians and influential fixers. The bank's president (Christopher Plummer) engages a smart wheeler-dealer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), to offer the crooks money and a light sentence in order to prevent them taking an incriminating document from his safe deposit box. A manipulator of the rich and powerful, with the mayor at her beck and call, White becomes as important an adversary as the gang leader, another problem for the detective.
The director interrupts the narrative of the robbery with flash forwards to grainy police videotapes of the detectives interrogating the hostages, attempting to find out just who is a victim, which nicely demonstrates their utter confusion --- nobody can separate the bad guys from the good guys. Despite (or perhaps because of) some rather large leaps of logic, the picture's puzzle maintains a constant tension and excitement, never fully resolved until the conclusion, which itself involves a series of twists and switches.
With the help of an ingenious script and some competent performers, Lee manages, within the strictures of the genre, to add some of his characteristic touches. He uses some effective overhead camera shots to suggest a kind of graceful choreography in the gang's assault on the bank, and naturally includes the most familiar and essentially ridiculous Spike Lee shot, involving placing a character and a camera on a dolly and moving them away from a static background, for no apparent purpose at all. That shot, and Inside Man itself, however, demonstrate that Lee can retain some of his own style while directing a mainstream motion picture, which not incidentally, may be the best film he's made in recent years.
Inside Man (R),directed by Spike Lee, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Eastview Mall 13, Greece Ridge Cinema, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown, Webster 12.