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Friday, June 23, 2006

Spike Lee twists and turns

Inside Man

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Spike Lee
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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Spike Lee has been many things, but one thing he's never been is a director-for-hire, putting his talent to service to any script with financing attached. That all changes with "Inside Man," a taut, suspenseful heist flick that's the closest thing to a mainstream movie in Lee's career. Aside from Denzel Washington in the lead role, and New York City locations as the backdrop, you'd be hard-pressed to tell that this is "a Spike Lee joint," and not the work of some journeyman, like oh, Rob Shelton maybe? (Quick, I dare you, name one of his movies . . . )

News photo
Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington in "Inside Man"

Then again, Lee's career has been so all-over-the-place lately -- maybe a good, by-the-numbers genre flick is what's needed to settle him down. And that's certainly what "Inside Man" is; a slick, fast-moving crime caper that goes down easy, with none of Lee's usual racial-issue bones to stick in your throat. You could definitely file "Inside Man " closer to "Swordfish" than, say, "Dog Day Afternoon," despite Lee's expressed admiration for the latter, as the sweaty, street-realism of such 1970s crime flicks is shelved here in favor of contemporary, comic-book evil genius tropes.

Clive Owen, who proved in "Closer" that he can be credibly nasty, gets the aforementioned evil genius role here, playing Dalton Russell, a masked man who leads a gang of armed robbers in a raid on a Wall Street bank. His gang takes everyone hostage, and, in a tricky move, forces their captives to wear the same boiler suits and masks as the gang, thus complicating any rescue plans.

The police soon arrive, led by ace hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), who's unable to figure out what the robber's intentions are. He's soon joined by Madeleine White (Jodie Foster, unusually repellent), a fixer for Manhattan's power elite. She comes at the bequest of bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who's especially concerned about the incriminating contents of his safety-deposit box. Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Love Actually") also turn up as members of New York's finest.

The movie develops through the usual twists and turns of a heist flick, and Lee tries to up the mystery by some clever cutting from the present tense -- freed hostages being interrogated by Frazier -- to the past, with bit by bit accounts of what went down in the bank. The whole package is given a distinct look by cinematographer Matthew Libatique ("Requiem For A Dream"), who uses different camera styles and color processes to differentiate between the chaos on the streets around the bank, the smooth precision of the operation inside, and the confused isolation of Frazier's interrogation room.

Lee proves here he can make a competent thriller, but, you know, who can't? (OK, Michael Haneke's "Hidden" . . . ) There are touches of the old, race-sensitive Lee in details, like when a Sikh hostage is grabbed by police who react with violent post-9/11 panic, shouting: "It's a f***ing Arab!" But at the end of the day, Lee's most radical statement here is making the good guy black and the bad guy white. And that's not much indeed when compared to say, " Jungle Fever," but given the reality's of today's Hollywood, I guess it's still something.

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