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Hello (again) and thanks!

Evening all. It’s been a little while now since I posted anything that wasn’t a film review, and I’m conscious that there are quite a few people following my sporadic postings as and when I get half an hour to spare (there is a bunch of other, non-film, stuff too – but all in good time).

So I just wanted to thank everyone who has followed me since I started posting to the site and I hope you continue to enjoy reading my thoughts. If I say anything that you know to be factually incorrect, or just want to kick off about an opinion you don’t like, please do let me know and I’ll

a) update the content accordingly or

b) tell you in no uncertain terms how wrong you are.

Best wishes y’all,

Bloom.

Devil Wears Prada, The

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Unassuming would-be writer Andy Sachs finds that her new job as second assistant to Runway magazine editor Miranda Priestly is a never-ending series of thankless tasks, though it is a role that thousands would apparently kill for. As Andy finds her feet and slips them into some very nice Jimmy Choos, she discovers that pleasing Miranda means sacrificing friendship, loyalty, and many of the values that she previously held dear.

If you imagine the fashion industry to be a snobbish, elitist clique filled with people who would happily stab their colleagues in the back with their gorgeous stiletto-heeled shoes and climb over their still-warm bodies to get on in the business, then this film will do nothing to convince you otherwise. The Devil Wears Prada sees fresh-faced newcomer Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) entering the lair of Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), notoriously demanding editor-in-chief at fashion bible Runway, and quickly succumbing to the worst traits of the industry.

‘Andy’ is shown to us as a good girl, enjoying a low-maintenance relationship with scruffy cook Nate (Adrian Grenier) and a suitably diverse set of friends (black artist, camp computer guy) whilst she searches to put her prodigious journalistic talents to good use. When she applies for a job as the assistant to Miranda’s assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), she initially draws nothing but scorn for her dowdy looks and ignorance of the importance of fashion; but Miranda sees something in her and takes her on.

With the impatient help of Emily and a little nudging from enthusiastic designer Nigel (Stanley Tucci, camping it up a treat), Andy is reborn as a beautiful, head-turning butterfly, and her innate competence begins to show through. The job ceases to be ‘just a job’ and Andy begins to dedicate her life to complying with Miranda’s wishes, to the detriment of spending time with those who care about her – Nate’s birthday party is a disaster – and Emily’s plans to live the good life at Miranda’s right-hand side.

The Devil Wears Prada comes across as an authentic portrayal of the fashion industry, with a keen ear for bitchiness in the script and a constant parade of fashion icons, clothes and accessories that those in the know will adore. However, having the inside track on the subject does not on its own guarantee a great story, and the most vaguely savvy filmgoer will be able to predict the events of the film as soon as the characters are set up.

Even though Hathaway frumps up convincingly, it’s no surprise whatsoever that she is easily transformed into a glamorous clothes horse. Will she make herself indispensible to Miranda, to the exclusion of everyone else? Will she have to step over Emily to get on in her work, even denying her her dream trip to Paris? Will Nate react badly to Andy’s new responsibilities and attitude, and will devilishly charming writer Christian Thompson (Simon Baker) offer himself as an alternative? I think we all know the answers.

Were the film thoroughly entertaining or thoroughly dramatic throughout, the familiarity of the plot would be easy to forgive, but as the movie goes on it starts to get overwhelmed by its own negativity, as the wasteland that is Miranda’s private life is laid bare and poor Nigel is crushed between the cogs of Miranda’s scheming as she clings to the only thing that defines her – her job.

Nonetheless, when it is entertaining The Devil Wears Prada is a lot of fun, and this is due to attractive playing by the leads. Anne Hathaway brings the girl-next-door qualities that she showed in The Princess Diaries and marries them to commanding emotion in her big eyes and a sexuality that manages to be both obvious and non-threatening. She is also funny, shown to best effect in her exchanges with Emily Blunt who, while insanely focused on her job and dishing out many of the film’s best insults, also skilfully gets a lot of the sympathy as illness and then injury scupper her dreams.

Streep easily embodies the jaded ruthlessness of Miranda, the scathing boss whose orders are never questioned, managing to make her a partially sympathetic figure when she reveals to Andy the state of her personal affairs (though this particular bit isn’t much fun). In a film where the women dominate (for a change), Tucci does fantastically well to hold up his end; between them, these four clearly and cleverly demonstrate the ups and downs of the fashion industry – but while the characters are interesting and often amusing, there’s not quite enough meat to keep the film going for the best part of two hours.

It’s well-constructed and always watchable, but in the end The Devil Wears Prada has a feel of being put together by the book, with plot, cast, design and soundtrack all built as clinically as an issue of Runway magazine, crafted to the finest detail, leaving nothing to happy accident. Which is not to say the film lacks heart, because Andy and Emily display a great deal of warmth. What can be said is that the film is rarely light-hearted, and never carefree.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: When chaotician Ian Malcolm discovers that his girlfriend Sarah has been hired to research a second island of dinosaurs, his past experience tells him to get her out PDQ. He’s right too: but the trouble only starts when the real monsters – the company looking to maximise revenues from the prehistoric creatures – arrive, intent on creating a new attraction closer to home.

Poor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). Having lived to tell the tale of Jurassic Park, InGen – the company formerly run by John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, briefly reprising his Scottishish accent) have not only denied all knowledge of Isla Nubar, they’ve secretly kept a second island of dinosaurs running. What’s more, after an unfortunate incident, InGen has sent Ian’s partner Sarah (Julianne Moore) to the island to research the diverse range of dinosaur life.

Ian sets off in hot pursuit to get her out before the inevitable chaos starts, but he’s not alone: in addition to engineer Eddie (Richard Schiff), the party includes photographer Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn) and – inadvertently – Ian’s gymnastic but hardly close daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester). They’re soon joined on the island by InGen’s Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), a small army of workers and single-minded hunter Roland (Pete Postlethwaite), looking to put a Tyrannosaurus Rex on his trophy wall. Ludlow has plans to establish a new Jurassic Park in San Diego and, despite Ian’s predictions coming catastrophically true, he’s determined to get his way at any cost.

Many factors went into making Jurassic Park a wonderful film, not least the simplicity of its plot – essentially, an exciting, two-hour long scramble for safety. While there was a sub-plot in Nedry’s commercial sabotage, it went hand in glove with the main storyline and set the whole thing in motion. The problem The Lost World has is not merely the inevitable backtracking and revisionism needed to make it possible – ‘Oh, did I not mention site B?’; ‘Lysine deficiency? Dinosaurs got round that in a snap’ – but the fact that once all the protagonists have been sent to Isla Sorna, the film goes in several directions at once: Ian’s various relationship difficulties, Nick’s activism, InGen/Ludlow’s corporate greed, callousness and insane plans, Roland’s quest for a showdown.

Unsurprisingly, the dinosaurs chasing after the humans is the least problematic part of the film, since Spielberg is an absolute master of this sort of action; the breaking-glass excitement of the vehicle hanging over the cliff is a particular highlight. However, the mechanisms used to put everyone in place are ungainly at times: so Kelly just sits in that van, with nobody checking in and Ian not wondering where she’s got to?

A contingent problem The Lost World has is that it tries to carve up our sympathies too finely. We know who our five – then four – heroes are, and it couldn’t be more clear that Ludlow is a human monster (What does Spielberg have against bookish men in small, round-rimmed glasses?); but what to make of Roland, seemingly an evil hunter but given dignity (and allowed to live) because he’s a pure predator like the T-Rex?

And what to make of the dinosaurs themselves? Yes, they’re still savage beasties, but hey, they’re parents too. Amongst this confusion, it’s difficult to know what to make of characters like Peter Stormare’s Dieter: on the one hand, he’s boorish and sadistic towards the poor little Compsognathi (if that’s the plural); on the other, does he really deserve his nasty demise?

All this is without the typically Spielbergian father-daughter guff between Ian and Kelly; she’s not overwhelmingly annoying, though Chester’s acting isn’t always the best, and I (unlike many, it seems) don’t have a problem with her ethnicity except to say that it has a whiff of tokenism about it. What I don’t accept is that a small girl swinging on an uneven bar will have anything like the force to kick a ruddy great velociraptor out of a window.

As far as the rest of the leads go, Goldblum and Moore are both fine if unconventional action heroes, Howard’s Arliss is gloriously hateful, and Postlethwaite carefully controls his ambivalent status throughout. There’s nothing wrong with Vince Vaughn’s Nick Van Owen, either, but it’s interesting to look back and see Mr Insincerity having a go at being a regular movie star – with not entirely convincing results.

Of course, what Spielberg evidently really wants from The Lost World is his own King Kong/Godzilla moment, and this second climax is where the film comes alive. The San Diego section is action-packed, immaculately visualised, funny (check out the spoof movie displays in the Blockbuster store) and really helps to make the movie feel less like a re-tread of the original. Even here, however, there’s a downer in the shape of a massive plot hole. If the ship’s crew have been dead for a while, how on earth does it get to San Diego, and why has nobody twigged that there’s a problem? Alternatively, if the crew have only just been killed, what killed them? It can’t have been the Tyrannosaurus safely locked up below deck. Perhaps wisely, Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp* keep the action moving in the hope that we won’t dwell on these things too much.

I never give sequels credit for merely repeating the events of the first film, and it has to be said that more than a few scenes from The Lost World echo Jurassic Park very closely. That said – and despite a surprisingly high number of sloppy writing flaws – the action still works like a charm, thanks to the brilliance of the special effects and the innate sense of rhythm Spielberg possesses for action movies. By no means a monster hit, this movie is still far from beastly.

NOTES: At least Koepp gets his comeuppance in the film. He’s appears – briefly – as a victim of the T-Rex’s wrath, and is credited as ‘Unlucky Bastard’.

Spider-Man

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: On a school field trip, nerdy science genius Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically-engineered spider, causing him to undergo some very sudden and profound changes. With his new-found powers, Peter also finds that with great power comes great responsibility, that he cannot protect everyone he loves, and that those near him are not always looking after his best interests.

It wasn’t a term that was used at the time of Spider-Man’s release, but Sam Raimi’s film is essentially a ‘reboot’ of the web-slinging hero’s movie career, following on from some limp TV movie efforts produced in the late 70s. Here, Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker, the introverted youngster who gets nipped by a super-spider and inherits its traits of athleticism, web-slinging and eerie precognition.

As expositions go, Spider-Man is pretty effective, the film quickly establishing that Parker is clever, the victim of bullying, and hopelessly in love with the red-headed girl next door, Mary-Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Parker lives with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris) and is friends with bolshy rich boy Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of even bolshier military industrialist Norman (Willem Dafoe); all of this is set up in the first ten minutes or so, and leaves plenty of time for Peter to discover and develop his powers, dishing out an entertaining beating to the bullies who formerly tormented him and making a name for himself via a comical wrestling bout, although that evening ends in tragedy as Peter fails to foil a robbery, the robber shooting Uncle Ben and providing the young superhero with a valuable lesson in what he should be doing.

So far, so good, and despite Harry starting a relationship with MJ, she falls in love with the masked Spider-Man, meaning Peter is happier than ever. But into his life comes the evil Green Goblin, in fact the deranged persona of Norman Osborn, the result of an experiment gone wrong. The Goblin causes havoc wherever he turns up, most notably protecting the interests of Norman’s company, and it falls to Spidey, whenever he is not providing photographs of himself to the Daily Bugle, to rescue the population from his dastardly plans.

It is with the appearance of the Green Goblin that Spider-Man displays most of its faults. It is, of course, a tricky balancing act to introduce the characters of (what will hopefully become) a franchise and also tell a complete tale; but the original Superman and the more recent X-Men both did a better job than Raimi here.

This is because the Green Goblin is simply not a convincingly menacing character. For all of Dafoe’s impassioned acting against himself, the character is essentially a fixed green mask on a hoverboard. When Dafoe is arguing against the mask on the back of a comfy chair it is almost as if the chair is taunting him, and when the Goblin is in full action he resembles a fairly cheap Power Rangers villain.

Moreover, in flight the Green Goblin – Spider-Man too, unfortunately – shows up weaknesses in the film’s CGI: too often, the characters’ movements are jerky and stiff, not entirely human in appearance. Also, the light appears to come from several sources, which does not make the CGI unrealistic as such, but throws up very clearly the difference between when the characters are being represented by people in costumes and when it’s being done by computer ‘magic.’ You also have to wonder why (other than the obvious film-ending reason) the Green Goblin does not simply kill our hero when he drugs him and takes him onto a high roof to give him a lecture.

Other aspects of the film are far more successful, however. Maguire is a perfect balance of athleticism and goofiness for the role of Peter/Spider-Man, who never has the cocksure confidence of other superheroes; Dunst is sweet as MJ, with her own frustrations in life and pretty without seeming unobtainable – she also gets that iconic upside-down kiss – whilst J.K. Simmons is fantastic as the Bugle’s shoot-first-shout-later editor Mr Jameson. The climax, too, is carried out with some panache, Spidey forced to choose between a cable car full of children and Mary-Jane’s life.

That climax also shows up some cute writing, in that Spider-Man does not actually have to kill anyone, both Uncle Ben’s killer and the Goblin doing away with themselves. Harry’s discovery of Spider-Man returning his father’s dead body sets up future conflict nicely, and there is a nice note of self-sacrifice in Peter pushing MJ away. In fact, everything about Spider-Man sets up Spider-Man 2 for the terrific sequel it would prove to be; it is perhaps inevitable that with the job of providing the set-up, this movie would only be a qualified success.

Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Dastardly Dr Evil inflicts a fate worse than death on shagadelic British agent Austin Powers by going back to the 1960s and stealing the very thing that defines him – his ‘mojo’. Austin goes back to the 60s himself and teams up with foxy CIA operative Felicity Shagwell to retrieve it and stop Dr Evil’s plan for world domination, but the villain puts obstacles both big and small in their way.

By the 1990s James Bond had been so heavily parodied even some of the Bond films were little more than self-conscious send-ups of themselves (witness Roger Moore rustling up a meal in A View to a Kill). This being the case, the success of Mike Myers’ crooked-toothed secret agent Austin Powers in 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was something of a surprise; but a hit it was, and two years later came a sequel with the Bond-referring title The Spy Who Shagged Me. Not a particularly clever pun, you may think: but sort of funny nonetheless.

The film begins (after a Star Wars-style scrolling recap) with Austin on his honeymoon and alarmed to discover that his new bride Vanessa (Liz Hurley, thankfully in the briefest of cameos) is in fact just another of Dr Evil’s ‘fembots’, but he escapes to enjoy being newly single and do battle with his old nemesis, last seen in a Big Boy in space. Dr Evil (Myers again, of course) has not been idle (in an odd piece of product placement, his corporation runs Starbucks) and whilst he has not patched up relations with sulky son Scott (Seth Green), he has created both a “time machine” (his quotes, not mine) and a 1/8 scale version of himself called ‘Mini-Me’ (Verne Troyer).

He also has a fiendish plan: he will travel back to 1969 and employ inside man ‘Fat Bastard’ (Myers, in acres of latex) to rob the cryogenically-frozen Austin Powers of his mojo, thereby stopping the swinging spy in his tracks. The ploy is immediately successful, forcing modern-day Austin – with the help of the ever-useful Basil Exposition (Michael York) – to travel back in time himself to find Dr Evil’s volcano lair and stop the next, more predictable phase of his plan, ie. to hold the world to ransom with the aid of a moon-based laser dubbed (to Scott’s derision) “The Alan Parsons Project”.

Austin is not alone in his quest, as he is sought out by shapely CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) and the pair find there’s a mutual attraction. However, since Powers has lost his powers and Basil needs Felicity to get up close and personal with Fat Bastard in order to track down Dr Evil, Austin has more than the mere pursuit of a madman on his mind as he infiltrates Evil’s hideaway.

It’s pretty standard practice for a sequel to re-tread or reverse the plot of its predecessor and in this respect Austin’s journey back to the 60s is a case of more of the same. Austin’s catchphrases are present and correct and the banter between Evil and his various cronies is much as it was in International Man of Mystery (although Rob Lowe amusingly takes Robert Wagner’s place for much of the movie as a young No. 2). There is also a preponderance of toilet humour and much juvenile sniggering about sexual organs, plus a shadow trick which, though spiced up, is as old as the hills; even the Bond spoofing borders on being overly self-conscious (Austin watches In Like Flint, so at least the film acknowledges its debts).

In between, however, are some very good innovations: Mini-Me is hilariously deviant and although he’s appallingly treated in the final reel, Troyer appears to be game so complaints about a lack of political correctness are redundant; there is also fun to be had with the identity of Scott Evil’s mother (step forward an excellent Mindy Sterling as Frau Farbissina). On Austin’s side, the time travel conundrums (with the obvious nods to Back to the Future) are swept lightly away by Basil, and in Felicity Austin has a feistier and more believable ally than Liz Hurley ever was. Heather Graham is by no means the world’s greatest actress, but at least she’s an actress* and looks amazing in 60s gear and her Dr No-style white bikini – Myers looks rather less amazing in his. It was also nice to see Elvis Costello pop up to accompany Burt Bacharach.

One innovation that isn’t so welcome is Fat Bastard, an obscene, greasy character with no redeeming features whatsoever, save for audience members who find the line ‘I ate a baby!’ priceless. He does have that gross-out value, but he doesn’t really fit in with the tenor of the rest of the film and I found myself looking away most of the time he appeared on-screen.

The introduction of a third character for Myers smacks of the actor trying to ensure he bags every laugh in the film, a feeling strengthened by the late appearance of two Austins (one from ‘ten minutes from now’) engaging in mutual admiration. And in Dr Evil’s ever lengthier talks with his cronies there’s a hint of the indulgence that would sink the next sequel, Goldmember: yes, it’s passingly amusing, but Evil’s rendition of Just the Two of Us adds nothing to the film in terms of advancing the plot.

By and large, though, The Spy Who Shagged Me moves plenty quickly enough and has enough jokes that stick to make it a very enjoyable watch. Familiarity with the characters, good casting and an improved production budget (there’s some good stuff in space) ensure that this is the best of the Austin Powers series by some margin, even if it hints within itself that Powers is a two-movie joke at most. You won’t learn much about yourself whilst watching it, except for your personal limits about tastelessness, since (like the title) it’s not a clever movie: but it’s funny nonetheless.

NOTES: Yes, I may be taking my prejudice a bit far. See my review of Bedazzled.

Gilda

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Crooked gambler Johnny Farrell has his life rescued in Buenos Aires by casino owner Ballin Mundson, who likes his style and offers him a job. However, their cosy arrangement is violently disrupted by the sudden arrival of Mundson’s new wife Gilda, a fiery redhead Johnny has met before. Johnny struggles to keep Gilda, and his own feelings, in check, but Ballin seems too busy with his curious business dealings to take much notice.

Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is the kind of guy who lives dangerously, taking advantage of hairy situations and living to tell the tale. For example, when he’s saved from a robbery by stranger Ballin Mundson (George Macready) and his pointy friend, he repays the kindness by cheating at Mundson’s illegal Buenos Aires casino; and when Mundson calls him to his office, Farrell’s chutzpah and handy fists earn him a job looking after the joint.

However, Johnny’s cushy world comes crashing down when Ballin returns from a business trip with an exotic souvenir – a knockout, flame-haired wife called Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda instantly hate each other, but it’s the kind of hate that’s obviously born of a tempestuous history, a passion that went badly wrong. Gilda teases Johnny – charged to look after her – by spending her spare time at the casino, throwing herself at any decent (or indecent) man she meets, while Ballin is tied up in murky business dealings involving a cartel, papers in the safe and some very interested Germans, all under the nose of discreet Argentine cop Obregon (Joseph Calleia). The Germans get too close for comfort and Mundson flees, but not before seeing Johnny finally getting too close to his wife. With Mundson presumed dead, Johnny marries Gilda; not for love, but to try to keep her singing in a cage.

There are clearly two different things going on in Gilda: firstly, there’s a brilliantly warped love triangle between Ballin, Johnny and Gilda, each of them wrestling for control with the weapons at their disposal. The strength of Johnny’s hatred for Gilda is fascinating, and the way she fights back captivating, while Mundson lurks in the background with a curious, cold menace. Secondly, there’s a strange tale of Tungsten mines and Nazi patents, of corruption and megalomania, which doesn’t hang together and fails to excite the senses in anything like the same way. Luckily, the passionate plot takes the lion’s share of the running time and this makes for a mostly engrossing film noir, complete with a smart sense of humour provided by provocative attendant Uncle Pio (Steven Geray).

But Gilda’s interest is not just qualified by the baffling subplot. While the writing is pretty acerbic, it’s not exactly Casablanca; and the interior locations don’t entirely capture the Latin heat of Argentina (the liveliness of the carnival – where one of the Germans meets a sticky end – makes you yearn for colour). Furthermore, although the filmmaking shows almost no technical limitations from being made in the 1940s, the incessant smoking is definitely of its time and may well make you reach to open a window.

All that said, any niggles about the plot are almost completely swept away by something you simply don’t get in the movies any more: the star power of Rita Hayworth. Hayworth is a stunning woman, the absolute embodiment of movie star glamour, with long, flowing hair (you instinctively know she’s a redhead, despite the monochrome visuals), a face the camera just adores, and curves – as they used to say – in all the right places. She carries off Gilda’s free-spiritedness too, sending Johnny, Ballin and countless others into a frustrated frenzy of distrust and desire (as Obregon observes, in distinctly un-PC fashion, “Women can be extremely annoying”).

She’s not, however, an actress who possesses great range or subtlety; and as the film becomes more complex, and Ford manfully portrays Johnny’s erratic power trip, she regresses into what she knows best – song and dance numbers (though she doesn’t sing, just like she – very, very obviously – doesn’t play the guitar). Of course, where the story goes isn’t really Hayworth’s fault. Once Gilda flees to Venezuela, the film loses its shape and never really regains it; and while the ending ties up all the loose ends, it feels rushed and more than a little pat.

Still, in the pantheon of tungsten monopoly movies, Gilda stands sumptuously-coiffed head and sublime shoulders above the rest. If you’re the sort of person who deliberately ignores anything in black and white on the grounds that it’s old and boring, not all of this picture will change your mind. If, on the other hand, you care anything for abrasive character-based drama or good old-fashioned Hollywood glamo(u)r, you will either have seen it already or should do so as soon as you can. And if you just came looking for Rita’s sultry dance to Put The Blame On Mame – well, I just hope you followed the rest of the movie first!

Inside Man

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.