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Inside Man

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Finally, after a long wait (ever since Lord of the Rings probably), a film that is worth the 8 bucks admission to the theatre! Short review: don’t miss. Long review follows (with apologies for the two-week delay).

Director Spike Lee’s usual forte is ‘serious’ films that often deal with race issues such as Malcolm X, Girl 6, Summer of Sam, and the film-about-race-most-talked-about-before-Crash, Do the Right Thing. Here, in Inside Man, Lee changes gears to make an entertaining caper/heist film (much like what Steven Soderbergh did with Oceans’ 11). These films, IMO, are often not easy to get right since there are only so many ways of cleverly robbing a bank and only a few variations to the cat and mouse game. To the writer Russell Gewirtz‘s credit, he has come up with an innovative plot and Lee’s direction is spot-on while managing to avoid the usual clichés (actually there are some clichés, but they are inventively employed as plot devices). This results in a thrilling and clever film that fits right in with classics of the genre such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair, How to Steal a Million, The Sting etc.

The fact that both the opening and the closing credits beat to the tune of A R Rahman’s ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ does help in adding tot he favorable impression ! This is a direct tribute to Rahman as apparently Lee was quite enamored with the song. (Link from Sepia Mutiny)

The film opens with a short monologue by Dalton Russel (Clive Owen), who says (and we notice) that he is restricted in a cell, but claims to have just planned and executed the perfect bank robbery! The camera then cuts away as we are treated to a great visual montage of New York City, while gradually closing in on the imposing granite edifice of a bank and finally resting on the bustling morning activity inside the bank (the changing of the scenes were rhythmic to the beat of ‘Chaiyya…’, which I though was a nice touch). We also see at this time, four people dressed up as painters driving up to the bank in a van. We expect them to be the robbers and indeed they take hold of the bank with AK-47 guns, smoke bombs, security-camera saturating infrared lights and the usual ‘this is a robbery – everyone down on the floor’ spiel. Everyone inside is taken as hostage, leading to Detective Keith Frazer (Denzel Washington) being called in as a hostage negotiator. Frazer is a suave and cool character, but has a sword hanging over him in the form of a fraud investigation. This job, which he gets by default, is probably going to be his redemption.

What follows are some fascinating and tense scenes involving the cat and mouse game between the police and robbers. The overriding sense you get while the heist is in progress is that nothing is really as it seems. Detective Frazer in fact realizes it but is unable to put his finger on the issue as the police are sent on some wild-goose chases. Also, as a major twist in the story, it is reveled (to the audience only) that the owner of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, erudite as ever), has something hidden in the bank’s vault that is seemingly much more valuable than all the money there. In desperation, he employs Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a so called ‘problem-solver’ with connections in very high places (a female Winston Wolf if you will, only classier – first time we see her, she is sitting in her plush office helping to get Osama bin Laden’s cousin a mortgage for a property in NYC!). Foster’s role, while essential in moving the plot, is probably the movie’s only weakness. I was disappointed at the real lack of chemistry in the scenes involving her and Plummer or Washington.

As the movie goes through these twists and turns – the unraveling takes place in stages. You get in on one of the secrets early on – how the robbers have planned their escape. Also there are flash-forward scenes, which while revealing which hostages get out safe, contain conversations that add to the mystery, thereby keeping our interest piqued till the final pay-off happens towards the end (when you also realize and smile at the clever title for the film).

Since this is a Spike Lee movie after all, there are also several social sub-texts mainly involving racism and sexism through the film – especially in a scene involving a Sikh employee of the bank (covered in more details by Manish at Sepia Mutiny). And I should mention another technical aspect that I loved. The camera movements in the initial part of the film are quite jerky with rapid cuts, fade in and outs and quick transitions etc giving the film an edgy look. As the movie progresses, the tension builds up and the audience is drawn in to the suspense, the camera settles down with longer shots. The effect on the audience is subtle but an important one for developing the mood.

The acting is first rate, as expected from this stellar cast and is helped by some crisp dialogues. The only disappointment, as I mentioned earlier, was Jodie Foster. Her acting was good but the scenes with Christopher Plummer and Denzel Washinton appeared contrived. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I thought was outstanding in Dirty Pretty Things and Melinda and Melinda but is still a relative unknown in Hollywood, does a fine job as Washington’s assistant. Holding your own against an accomplished actor like Denzel Washington is no mean feat. Also mention-worthy is Wilhelm Dafoe’s role as Captain John Darius, the officer in charge of police operations.

So in summary, a great way to spend your Fri/Sat evening.

PS: [mild spoiler alert!!]I happen to agree most of the time with Roger Ebert’s film reviews. But this time I think he missed the trick. He gives the film only two and a half stars. Ebert has explained many times that his rating system is relative – meaning that in this case, he really expected much more from Spike Lee and was disappointed. He seems to obsess over the fact that Arthur Case should be in his mid-nineties, but Plummer did not look that old on screen. Here is his reasoning:

and if a man was old enough in the early 1940s to play an important wartime role, how old would he be now? Ninety-five? He might still be chairman of the bank he founded, but would he look like Christopher Plummer?

Given the situation at that time, a twenty year old as of circa 1940, could have certainly played an important role in World War II. That would make him 86 in the present age – and with a healthy lifestyle – he could certainly look like what Christopher Plummer potrayed.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

April 7, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Films, Reviews

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