Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Inside Man See's Spike Lee Excelling In The Confines of A Hostage Thriller

Spike Lee has done a lot in his distinguished filmmaking career, but in 2006, twenty years after his first directorial effort was released, he got to try out helming a mid-budget Hollywood heist movie for the first time. Easily the most expensive and commercial endeavor of his career, the feature would end up being Inside Man, and thankfully, Lee wouldn't be sacrificing his own unique traits as an artist to make this motion picture. For instance, though he's not credited with the screenplay penned solely by Russell Gerwitz, a lot of traits in the Inside Man script, namely an emphasis on extensive dialogue, feel akin to what one might find in a typical Lee screenplay. This project certainly feels like it's been fitted for Lee's sensibilities and that results in an extremely entertaining heist thriller.

Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) opens Inside Man by directly telling the audience that he is good at what he does. What he does is rob banks and he's about to pull off his greatest heist yet in a Manhattan bank. Once he and his crew take everyone in the bank hostage, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is sent in to see if any kind of negotiation can be attempted with this robber. An already tricky situation involving trying to talk to the erratic Russell gets even more complex once Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) enters the picture. She's been sent by the owner of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), to retrieve something from the bank that's under siege, which only raises further issues for Frazier.

Inside Man is a carefully woven web of intrigue that occasionally feels a touch too complex but for the most part manages to pull off a story as intricately planned out as Dalton Russell's heist. Part of this web includes many brief scenes set after the hostage situation has been resolved that focus exclusively on Russell and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofer) interviewing the hostages to see if they had any involvement in the robbery. Darting back-and-forth across time alone is a risky concept for any movie and it's especially perilous in a hostage thriller where these jumps ahead into the future show that the previously captive hostages have gotten out of the bank. In theory, that should deflate the tension in the story right away.

But Inside Man is able to pull off these jumps forward in time for a number of reasons, chief among them being that the tension in the story isn't derived from whether or not everyone will get out alive. By adding in the presence of the mysterious Madeleine White as well as the nebulous nature of Dalton Russell's motivations for pulling off this robbery in the first place, Inside Man gets its tension from Keith Frazier trying to figure out the motivations of elusive individuals rather than from the survival of the hostages Russell has taken in. The various interview segments set in the future are also aided in execution by the entertaining interactions Washington and Ejiofer's characters have with the various former hostages as well as some distinct lighting and color grading choices meant to differentiate these scenes from ones set during the hostage situation.

There's plenty of other examples of similarly distinctive visual choices found throughout Inside Man, particularly in the camerawork which shows a remarkable sense of consideration throughout in frequently subtle ways. For example, there's a high-angle shot of Madeleine entering the bank that allows the scope of the building to be truly felt while it's executed in a muted manner that allows one's focus to remain on the characters. There's also a brief homage to a powerful low-angle shot in Malcolm X showing the titular character from the waist-up standing still as the world around him moves works as both a tip of the hat to a prior Lee work and an evocative visual choice on its own merits.

Getting captured by all this splendid camerawork is a superb line-up of actors that see's the likes of Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer (the latter individual amusingly playing basically the evil version of his Sound of Music character) showing up to lend their hefty talents to smaller supporting roles. In the lead role, Denzel Washington delivers the sort of relatable yet commanding work that makes so him ideal for unpredictable & wildly entertaining thrillers (see also: Unstoppable or The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) while Clive Owen makes for a highly enigmatic foe who captures your attention from the first time he speaks to the audience. Wahsington and Owen both turn in strong performances in Inside Man, a cat-and-mouse game that may be unlike typical Spike Lee directorial efforts but you wouldn't know it given how assured his work behind the camera is.

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