Thursday, December 13, 2012
(March 2006, U.S.)
I'm going to do something I've only done once before on this blog (CHARIOTS OF FIRE) and start off with my favorite dialogue from Clive Owen's character (there IS a reason):
Dalton Russell: "My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I've told you my name: that's the Who. The Where could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there's a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. The What is easy: recently I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. That's also the When. As for the Why: beyond the obvious financial motivation, it's exceedingly simple...because I can. Which leaves us only with the How; and therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub."
What I've done here is important because these words are more than just the introduction and the set-up. They're also the payoff and the resolution because when they're repeated again (word-for-word) at the end of Spike Lee's INSIDE MAN, the viewer is in a completely different position of interpretation than they were at the beginning of the film.
That being immediately said, I must confess that a bank heist film from the director who gave us brilliant social pieces like DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and MALCOM X (1992) is possibly the last thing I ever expected. Ah, but that's what makes life's little surprises so intruiging, yes? This is not your average, cliche bank heist film that goes by the usual story playbook that made Al Pacino in DOG DAY AFTERNOON (the film is actually referenced in this script) so classic. INSIDE MAN is not what it seems because the traditional bank robbery that we THINK we're seeing is actually an elaborate illusion for something else that will have us scratching our heads in awe later on. Denzel Washington's (his fourth film with Spike Lee) character of Detective Keith Frazier is very key here, beyond the obvious reason that he's the good guy of the film, because he makes it more than clear to those he's working with on this case that there's something a lot more complex and diabolical behind the public facade of the so-called bank robbery. He's the first one to suspect there's something odd about Dalton Russell (Owen) demanding a getaway plane for himself and the bank hostages because he (Keith) knows very well that no bank robber ever got away with such a stunt, and he knows that Dalton knows that, too. Keith also suspects an insider (or more than one) in the bank who's in on the job. We see this in the non-linear flash-forward structure when he and his partner are interviewing the hostages and trying to trap them into confessing that they were in on it. It never happens, though, and the mystery and the frustration mounts. Because all of the hostages are forced to dress in the same attire as the bank robbers, it's virtually impossible (except for Clive Owen) to clearly identify who's the bad guy and who's the good guy. But that's all part of the plan, you see, to set you, the viewer, up for a revelation that has you saying, "Holy shit!". Yes, in the end, when all is over and the leftover contents of the bank heist are assessed, no money was stolen, no one was actually killed, the assault rifles were actually fake and the bank robbers were actually able to walk freely out the front door. When we learn what they did, in fact, steal from a safety deposit box and why and who it will justifyably hurt in the end, we're left with only a great feeling of cinematic satisfaction and possibly the urge to start the film over and experience it all again.
Now, on the slightly negative side, I have to say that for a talented and accomplished actress like Jodie Foster, her role in this film is almost beneath her real abilities. As a resourceful "fixer" or something of the sort, she carries her character as someone who is overly proud of her position and her ego and actually believes herself more powerful over others than she likely really is. Listening to her make demands of people like the Mayor of New York City and the police with that rather shit-eating grin on her face accomplishes no more to the viewer than giving them the urge to reach into the screen and smack her on the face a few times. Well, that's ME, anyway.
And so, while I'll always give the honor of best bank heist film to Sidney Lumet's 1975 classic, I can freely confess that Spike Lee's efforts here are a very close second because there's nothing more irresistible than the element of surprise...GOOD surprise!