WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Dogged Detective Frazier is called to handle an armed robbery at a Manhattan bank, but as everyone inside is dressed the same, how can he tell the captors from the captives? Why is the bank’s ageing, respected owner so twitchy about one particular box in the vaults? And why do the robbers, having made all the usual demands, leave without taking any of the money?
Ah, the heist movie, how we love you. Quite why armed bank robberies should be considered movie gold is something of a mystery – though it’s probably the lure of guns and money in close proximity – but from Dog Day Afternoon to Heat, the hold-up is a Hollywood staple.
The films can be judged by the ingenuity of the robbers’ scheme, and in this respect Inside Man scores fairly highly. We begin with imprisoned gang leader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) telling his story, at pains to point out that imprisonment can be very different from a prison cell, before the film takes us to the scene of the crime itself, where a gang of boiler-suited robbers take control of a Manhattan bank, herding the staff and customers alike into the depths of the building and making everyone wear identical clothing.
Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington, smiling and unflappable), despite the threat of a corruption charge hovering over him, is assigned to lead the negotiations, and he sets up the police response team with the assistance of Capt. Darius (Willem Dafoe); the two share a spiky relationship as the game of cat-and-mouse begins, the robbers threatening to kill hostages unless their demands are met and seemingly a step ahead of the police’s every move. As events unfold, the film takes us forward to the interviews Frazier and his assistant Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conduct with the released captives, and it quickly becomes clear that the police do not know who is hostage and who is robber.
Alongside this crisis, the bank’s chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, regularly a villain these days) is inordinately worried that the robbers will discover the contents of safety deposit box 392, so he calls in fixer Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to try to get them back. As Miss White is a ‘magnificent c**t’ (the script’s shock-value words, not mine) with something on everyone in power, she gets to talk to Russell, but he turns out to be strangely resistant to her proposals. In the meantime, Darius, prompted into action by the apparent killing of a hostage, plans to storm the bank. Events, however, overtake him.
There is a satisfying tension to the film as to whether Russell (played with calm assurance by Owen, though his accent occasionally slips) will walk out of the bank as he promises, or whether Frazier and his men will get to the bottom of the plot and see justice done; the exchanges between the two take centre stage and are very well done. But eventually, the film treats the reveal of how Russell pulls off his scheme as a side-issue, the robbery itself paling beside Plummer’s greater crimes, and I am not sure that this plot-line entirely works: for one thing, the idea of Nazi diamonds belongs to seventies films like Marathon Man or The Boys from Brazil; for another, Foster’s character, coolly though she plays it, stretches credibility to breaking point. It is incredibly convenient that she has dirt on just about everybody in New York, enabling her to waltz through police lines to gain access to the robbers.
None of Inside Man’s characters are fully fleshed out, Russell’s motivation never explained fully and Frazier’s cool devotion to his job coming across as rather glib. There is also a significant reduction in the film’s impact once you know what’s going on, and on a second watch the film becomes pretty routine because you know what the twist will be, something you can put down to Lee’s competent but not thrilling direction.
Lee is famous for making edgy films informed by the prejudices faced by different races; that edge is present here, but pushed into the background: a Sikh bank worker is roughly treated even though he is a victim; Frazier has to deal with the loose tongue of a bigoted cop; and a boy plays an amusing parody of a computer game which glamorises black-on-black violence, satirising the attitude of rap artists. These all help to perk up the film, which is otherwise played out as a mental game of chess between cop and robber – as no actual shootout takes place, Lee spices up the movie by playing out scenarios that don’t happen, a clever move if also a transparent one.
Inside Man, then, is a mixed bag: A nice set-up and some sparky performances (I particularly like Ejiofor, and Samantha Ivers’ turn as a mouthy hostage), but equally an overwrought story and not so intriguingly made that you would want to watch it time and again. Definitely one to try before you buy*.
NOTE: This review was written in the dim and distant days when renting and/or buying DVDs was still the regular way of consuming movies.