Bank heist films are often about narrative, about the ability of the authors of the heist, the bank robbers, telling one story while working to convince the detective, security guards, the police, and often the audience that they are telling another story. The best heists take place when the bank robbers use the conventions of past heists (or heist films) but depart from the normal script in one or two key ways. It’s as if the author of the heist is directing his or her own heist film, complete with smoke and mirrors, just as a film director might use special effects. Spike Lee’s latest film, the taut, witty thriller, The Inside Man (IMDB) gleefully plays with this notion of the heist as story while simultaneously telling a genuine New York story, something that Lee has done better than anyone in the years after September 11. What I also appreciated about Lee’s film was its ability to encourage identification with both the perpetrators of the heist and with the detectives commissioned to bring the hostage situation to a safe and peaceful resolution, particualrly with Denzel Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier.
The film opens with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) directly addressing the camera, telling the audience, “I choose my words carefully,” and then proceeding to give the audience (almost) everything they need to know to figure out the basics of Russell’s plan, and while Stephanie Zacharek argues that “no matter how closely you watch, or how clever you think you’re being, you’ll never pick it up,” I had a pretty good guess about where the heist and the story itself would go. But even with that knowledge–and perhaps because of it, in my case–I still very much enjoyed The Inside Man and Lee’s playful tweaking of past heist films and the classic New York films, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, to which his movie pays homage. We also know that most, if not all, of the hostages survive, as we watch Frazier and his partner, Det. Mitchell interrogate people in flash-forwards that anticpate what will happen.
The basics of the heist: four people, dressed as painters, come into the bank at the same time. They use the equipment they carry to barricade the doors while another uses spotlights to blind the security cameras making it all but impossible to see what is happening. The robbers then force their hostages to give up their cell phones and to strip down to their underwear. They make one other request, which like Zacharek, I won’t reveal. At this point, the robbers and the police and detectives, led by Frazier, Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe), set up communications, with the robbers setting their plot in motion (and here, I think Roger Ebert’s review seriously underestimates Lee’s film, with Ebert asking at one point, “Did they want to be trapped inside the bank?” Yes, they did. The success of their heist depends on it. In fact, Dalton has accounted for every step the police will take. He knows that accepting the offer of food (pizza) from the police will come with a specific price and anticipates that well in advance. He knows that releasing a Sikh hostage with a message wrapped around his neck will provoke a specific, gut response from the police, one based on mistaking the hostage for an Arab and a potential terrorist. In fact, several sequences in the film–including a rash decision by Captain Darius–might be seen as an implicit critique of the increase in police surveillance in New York, discussed here by James Wolcott, with the heist itself relying on and therefore foiling the surveillance apparatus.
But Lee’s film, based on a script by Russell Gewirtz, layers on a third plot, one that complicates Frazier’s ability to capture the bank robbers. The owner of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), seems far more concerned about protecting certain valuable items in the bank than in the money in the bank’s vaults. To that end, he hires the mysterious and aptly named Ms. White (played with relish by Jodie Foster), a “fixer” to the wealthy and influencial, to protect his interests, which may or may not correspond to those of the police. And as with most heist films, much of the suspense derives from the knowledge that each character has at a given point in the film. I won’t reveal the specifics of what valuable objects Case wishes to protect, other than to say that the objects deeply indict his character and the means by which he is able to obtain his wealth. Case’s bank itself–with its opulent, art deco interiors, and the majestic friezes and facades oustide–also seems to function as a character in the film, setting in contrast the street itself, often identified with rapid pans, crwods, and movement, with the vast interiors where we encounter Case and White.
While many observers have noted that The Inside Man appears to be the “least personal” film that Lee has made, I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a departure in that Lee seems to be working with a bigger budget, but the post 9/11 New York setting is crucial to the film’s narrative and provides a basis for the interactions between characters, with Det. Frazier gently chiding a police officer for using racial epithets while the police themselves are on guard against another terrorist attack, as suggested when they mistake a Sikh man for a potential terrorist. Perhaps his most compelling critique, however, features Dalton, the author of the heist, registering horror at a nine-year-old boy playing a Grand Theft Auto style video game on a Gameboy featuring disturbing depictions of black-on-black violence. Ironically juxtaposed against the bank vault full of money–the two are even sitting on bales of cash–Dalton tells the boy, “I’ll have to talk to your father about this.”
I think Zacharek is right to fault critics who will fail to regard The Inside Man as one of Lee’s “great” films. In part because of herreview, I couldn’t help but think about the vastly overrated Crash, with its muddled message about racial tolerance, and while Lee’s most recent film takes a much lighter, less preachy touch, it offers a far more observant portrait of New York’s melting pot of ethnicities and cultures and the conflicts they face in a post-9/11, post-Giuliani New York City.