Inside Man (2006)
The trailer for Inside Man intrigued me - it had the look of a slick and stylish heist thriller with substance, it had a very impressive cast, and in Spike Lee it had a director of some renown making an unconventionally mainstream looking film. Now that I've finally watched it, I'm happy to say my initial impression was correct. The only thing I got wrong was that I underestimated how good it would be.
Inside Man begins with a man named Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) telling us about an ingenious bank heist that he carried out. We are then shown the bank heist being pulled off by masked individuals in a New York City bank, with Dalton being the ringleader. The robbers are calm and controlled, and have a very clear plan in mind. They take hostages and hole up in the bank, and they waste no time in getting rid of the hostages' cellphones and subduing them. Meanwhile on the outside, Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is being investigated for some money that's gone missing; he's given a break when he and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are assigned to the bank robbery. The owner of the bank being robbed, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), becomes agitated when he hears about the situation and enlists the services of Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a 'problem solver' with connections, to ensure that an item of his stored in the bank vault remains safe.
What ensues is the proverbial game of cat and mouse. Dalton makes demands in creative ways and confuses the cops, while occasionally releasing a hostage. Frazier tries to get a grip on the situation and out-think Russell while also contending with the abrasive police officer in charge (Willem Dafoe) who has it in for him. Madeline White's arrival on the scene adds some drama when she tries to take control of the situation and barter with Dalton. All the while there's a sense of mystery surrounding Arthur Case's secret item in the bank and the final outcome of Dalton's plan. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the film occasionally jumps forward in time to interviews between the two detectives and the hostages, where it is clear that the detectives are unsure whether the hostages were involved with the heist in some way.
Inside Man adheres to the conventions of its genre in most ways. It has an improbable but well thought out plot - in this case, one that holds together fairly well. It has standoffs between its protagonists, and battles of wits. It has twists and turns and puzzles that are not realistic but make the film that much more entertaining. But what Inside Man also has is a great script with lots of humour. It's slick and stylishly shot and has some tense and thrilling moments. It's also unique in that it captures the texture and character of a cosmopolitan city with the idiosyncrasies of different peoples and the tensions that exist between them. There are a lot of digressions that have little to do with the plot but are simply amusing and insightful exchanges between people. On the downside, one could argue that the main characters don't have much depth - they're characterized in broad strokes - but there's enough to go on, and the performances are good enough to make them seem believable.
Speaking of performances, the marquee names earn their paychecks in this one. The always good Jodie Foster in a relatively minor role as the somewhat mysterious Madeline White is icy and manipulative and exudes authority. Denzel Washington plays Detective Frazier as a smart tough cop struggling to juggle various different interests while ensuring that nobody gets hurt. The most memorable performance is Clive Owen's - despite being hidden behind a mask for most of the film, he conveys a lot of character through just his voice and body language. Dalton is smart, assured, unflinching and occasionally very funny - he's one of those cool 'villains' that you end up rooting for. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe are also memorable in their respective supporting roles. Only Christopher Plummer is left with little to do in a minor role.
Inside Man is a slightly unconventional conventional thriller that's a lot of fun without being dumb. It's improbable and cool like it's genre brethren, but it also has some thematic elements related to violence and culture clashes that leave some food for thought. It's well worth watching.