Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Inside Man

As the letters of Inside Man’s opening credits break apart and rearrange themselves like tumblers in a lock, an infectious Hindi song cranks up the energy inside the theater. The song, “Chaiya Chaiya,” is so good that I googled it later: It’s from Dil Se, a Bollywood film that Inside Man director Spike Lee reportedly loves and Variety’s Grady Hendrix describes as maybe “the greatest movie about terrorism every made.”

Welcome to another love letter from Lee, one of America’s best directors, to his New York City, a brash, impassioned, soulful mix of people from everywhere else on earth.

A lot of the credit for this “Spike Lee joint” belongs to first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz, who came up with a story fresh enough to make it easy to forgive the occasional plothole and the ending that fizzles to a halt several minutes too late. This is a bank robbery movie with a twist: The robbers aren’t after the money, so the focus soon shifts from the usual question (how will they do it?) to a new one (what exactly are they doing in there?)

In most heist movies, you’re inside the job, watching the thieves as they race to crack that safe or complete that sting. Inside Man mostly leaves us outside with detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington). Frazier is doing his best to manage the situation – and the cops who are jockeying with him for control – but the shots are being called by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), the man inside the bank.

The pace is surprisingly languid, since neither Frazier nor Russell appears to be in much of a hurry to get the robbers and their 50 or so hostages out of there. That leaves a lot of time to savor the actions and interactions of the characters, who represent a wide range of New York types.

Salted throughout the story of the siege at intervals are flash-forwards to Frazier’s interrogations of the hostages after they escape. These flesh out Frazier’s character, showcasing his sly wit and the sweetness Washington usually reveals in brief glimpses in his movies, doling out just enough to hook us. They also give us another puzzle to solve, since every hostage is a possible perp.

The robbers made all the hostages wear the same outfits and face masks they wore and ran out of the bank with them, so Frazier can’t figure out who’s who. One of Inside Man’s running jokes is that any of the hostages could be a scofflaw: After all, these are New Yorkers, mouthy and noncompliant. Even a middle-aged woman who looks like somebody’s bubbe barks “go ahead – make my day!” when Russell points his gun at her head, and a civilian the cops call in to help shows up with a shopping bag crammed full of parking tickets she wants fixed in exchange for the favor.

The movie gets in some nicely pointed yet unpreachy riffs on racism, which show the grinding gears of “message” movies like Crash for the creaky contrivances that they are. My favorite was an economical, gently humorous evisceration of the racial stereotyping and violence of gangsta video games, but there are plenty more, including a bit about Armenians (thanks, Spike!)

Then there’s the pure pleasure of watching Owen and Washington, both separately and together. Tall men with a cocky looseness in their loping gaits, the two are well-matched, with rhyming styles of cool. Both burn with a charisma that comes as much from intelligence as from intensity, and both can switch in mid-sentence from playful to menacing. Their characters here, both of whom operate from a strong sense of what’s right, recognize one another as kindred spirits.

In a supporting role as Madeline White, the fixer brought in by the bank president to discreetly short-circuit the robbery, Jodie Foster is mesmerizing, stalking about in heels so high it hurts just to look at them. Seal-sleek and smirking, Foster exudes a sense of steel-nerved self-satisfaction that almost disguises the fact that she’s nothing but a deux ex machina in Jimmy Choos, plopped into the plot to get Russell to explain what he’s after.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, the enormously talented British-Nigerian star of Dirty Pretty Things, is wasted here as Frazier’s nearly silent partner, and the two corrupt rich white men who represent the power structure are little more than straw men, despite the best efforts of the immensely talented Christopher Plummer to bring one of them – the bank’s president – to life.

But there’s so much to enjoy in this movie, including loving close-ups of only-in-New-York street scenes, architectural details, and settings like White’s showy office. It’s also a pleasure to see a heist movie in which nobody is killed and nothing’s blown up – except in the boy’s Grand Theft Auto game and a scenario the cops imagine, which is played out as if it were happening while they discuss it.

Best of all, it’s a joy to see Lee back in form. Inside Man may be “just” a genre flick, but it’s as inspired in spots as Lee’s last great opus, 2002’s 25th Hour.

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