‘Inside Man’ bamboozles audience with empty promises

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Inside Man
Universal, 2006
Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Russel Gewirtz
Rated R, 129 min.
Thriller/crime

“Inside Man” looks like it should be a good movie. It has several sexy and talented stars, it has a big-name director, and it promises a suspenseful and surprising crime drama.

Unfortunately, the movie’s diverse and bizarre elements result in a confused film that barely achieves coherence.

“Inside Man” opens with an unnecessary monologue by the film’s villain Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, “Sin City”). Dalton looks directly into the camera and tells us how smart he is and how he’s going to pull off the perfect bank robbery because he can. Sure enough, Dalton holds up a bank and takes everyone in it hostage. NYPD detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, “Manchurian Candidate”) is called in to negotiate with Dalton. The film details the events that follow.

Anyone interested in seeing “Inside Man” should skip this paragraph, because I’m going to give away the cop-out ending. The driving force of “Inside Man” is Dalton’s perfect bank robbery. His plan is rife with misdirection and nuance, and his ultimate goal is in question until the film’s ending. The big payoff is supposed to be finding out what his plan was, but when that payoff finally comes it is a bit of a letdown. In actuality, Dalton wasn’t robbing the bank at all. He was stealing things from a man who had a safe deposit box in the bank. Dalton began the movie by looking directly at me and promising to show me the perfect bank robbery, and then he didn’t. It’s hard to think of a better example of a film violating its implicit promise to the audience.

Dalton himself is an inadequate character, given what the film demands of him. The film centers so heavily on the struggle between Dalton and Keith that a great degree of characterization is called for. Instead, Russell is a wraith-like non-character with unlimited capabilities. He has a bunch of high-tech gadgets, knows police procedure intimately, has an intimate knowledge of bank security, and somehow knows a secret that no one is supposed to know. He is matter-of-fact and professional in every scene he’s in, and never deviates from this. In short, there’s nothing human about him. We know nothing about him other than his name. He’s like a highly advanced, bank-robbing robot.

The rest of the film is muddled as well. Spike Lee (“Summer of Sam”) has added his distinctive style and taste for depicting race relations, but there didn’t seem to be room for it in this movie. Given that the film takes place in the melting pot that is Manhattan, there are some reasonable opportunities for an exploration of what happens when various ethnicities come into contact with each other. However, this element of the film is so over-emphasized that it starts to feel like a director trying too hard to put his signature on his work. It’s possible that this element was present in the script and it wasn’t Spike Lee’s doing. Either way, it felt like something from a different movie. The simplest example is the music that plays over the film’s opening credits; it sounds like some sort of African or possibly middle-eastern folk music with a techno/funk edge. It’s a strange choice for a film about a New York bank robbery.

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In spite of its lame ending and muddled presentation, there are some interesting things happening in “Inside Man.” Russell’s plan has many clever nuances that are a lot of fun to watch. The film is chock-full of great actors, including Willem Dafoe (“Spiderman”) as a workingman cop who mostly stays in the background. There are some clever lines and funny interactions. It moves along at a brisk clip and never gets tedious. Many people will likely enjoy this film, but the fact that it delivers so poorly on its main premise is an unforgivable flaw.