Armed robbers storm a Manhattan bank and this Spike Lee ensemble. What a loss Clive Owen was to the mainstream playing field. It is hard to tell why he dropped out of the spotlight after a strong track record. In the same year Inside Man, a braggadocious detective feature released, so too did Children of Men. On the up and up, it is hard to see a way down. But it is better to appreciate the cold and tense work he provided, rather than whatever he got up to after this. With tension looming and excitement growing, Inside Man is a slick and clear bit of film from Lee, whose running commentary on gang warfare and the rise of violent video games is as mixed as all his other messages.
The opening heist is not that smart. Men do not get to walk into banks and point large lights at security cameras as freely as they do here. New Yorkers may be oblivious to the world around them, but they are not going to allow workmen to saunter on in and start mucking about with lamps. Still, it sets up a rather predictable heist. Dialogue that audiences have heard all before, delivered with usual, placid conviction. Owen is fine as the ringleader of this bank robbery, and the action that lingers outside is directed with all the right calls. Willem Dafoe and Denzel Washington are divine, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great companion to Washington’s detective work. Even when rescuing hostages, the people of New York are annoyed by the inconvenience, rather than thankful that they’re not dead.
Despite that lack of street smarts, this opening heist presents Inside Man with all the right notes. Playing with the scale of police response rather than the interactions, the streets of New York are given a sudden hustle and bustle. Firefighters and the press are catered to, not because they play a huge part, but because Lee realises showing the control of a panic-stricken public is just as important as what goes on inside the bank. Dog Day Afternoon and Sidney Lumet realised that too. Americans always want to be the hero, and Inside Man does a good job of persuading them otherwise. Through interesting choreography and implication, rather than sight, Owen is presented as ruthless and cutting.
Dafoe said it best. Inside Man is a film about “power and payback,” but beyond that, it takes into account those behind it and why a power trip is so appealing to those with a knack for heists and crime. There are often motives beyond money. Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster’s performances mark the heavy lifting for the story while the rest of this ensemble trade back and forth blows. Spliced up with interviews and detective work trying to solve the reasoning behind the heist and a subplot involving Plummer’s ownership of the bank, Lee is keen to showcase how he can envelop ensembles into broadly stretched stories. He handles his marks well and pieces together a smart and engaging heist thriller.