Inside Man

dir: Spike Lee
[img_assist|nid=890|title=Look into my pretty, pretty eyes|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=279]
This would have to be the most conventional film Lee has made in his career, and of his recent films, one of his most successful.

Lacking the elegiac tone of The 25th Hour, it’s still another love letter to New York in the shape of a crime thriller with more stars than it has work for. Really, it’s too many. I’m sure Jodie Foster doesn’t really need the extra money.

Lee’s not as prolific as Woody Allen, but fellow New York spruiker Spike Lee does pump the flicks out. He has a bigger cast than usual, and a script written by someone else for once, alongside a bigger budget probably than many of his other films combined.

It’s unlikely that the racial and class themes permeating his earlier work have been abandoned. Here, they’re mostly put on hold in order to deliver a mainstream heist flick with a high wattage cast that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and, though profoundly unlikely in its conclusion, doesn’t make me want to punch random strangers in the crotch.

But they’re still there. His work post September the 11th has always included the profound impact that terrible day had on the metropolis, and its reflection in themes of race and perception. So the way people relate and the presumptions they make are all given time to shine. But the impetus behind the film is still to deliver a highly-strung crime thriller, just that it’s situated in the melting pot that is New Amsterdam.

So it’s conventional, big deal. So it doesn’t end with a bag so much as it ends with an “Oh, okay, right, so that’s what it was all about, then.” So what? Most films end with “Look, we ran out of ideas and money, so here’s some shit we threw together.”

Good heist capers are rare, and whilst this doesn’t rank up there with the best of them (Rififi, Le Cercle Rouge, Police Academy 1 through 47), it’s competent enough that it staved off boredom for at least a couple of hours. And, look, I need to be distracted every now and then. I need competent action crime thrillers to distract me from the torment that suffuses my every waking and sleeping moment. Just like most people.

The film opens with Clive Owen talking directly into the camera, as he sits in what appears to be a jail cell. He admonishes the audience to listen carefully, as he intends to explain something once, and that he won’t repeat himself. Just like the French Resistance agent provocateur in the superlative tv series ‘Allo ‘Allo; a complex and multi-faceted examination of France under the occupying boot of the Nazis.

Even though at the end of the film he clearly repeats himself. So much for keeping promises.

He refers to the “how” of the heist, and, gently truncheon-fucking Shakespeare’s undead corpse, mumbles that therein lies the rub. He and his fellow crims then proceed to rub one out for the next two hours.

Four highly competent crims take over a bank. They are quick and efficient, and very technically minded. They take the bank’s employees and customers hostage, forcing them to dress in the same outfits as what the crims are wearing. The crims, especially Clive Owen’s character, give every impression of being ruthless and willing to kill everybody in order to achieve their aims.

The hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are dispatched to try and get things sorted out with a minimum of deaths. The police in general act competently and without resorting to Rodney King style violence, until they either hear what they think is an Arab accent or see a Sikh guy who they confuse with Uncle Bin Laden. Then they lead with their truncheons, as they should. Those pesky Sikhs have been asking for it for fucking years.

The cops also, at one point, get confused and start thinking that maybe remnants of the Soviet Empire are perpetrating the robbery. This is played for comedy more than any comment on the Cold War, though I would have enjoyed hearing the Russian national anthem.

It becomes clear that the crims are far sharper than the cops (as you’d want them to be in such a flick), and as the situation gets more complex you wonder how it’s all supposed to work out. Yes, you’re actually, to use an Americanism, rooting for them to win.

Though Jehovah knows why that would be the case. There’s barely anything to the characters apart from what they do, the plot is moved by momentum rather than any character development. This isn’t, and it gets name-checked, Dog Day Afternoon.

But it moves briskly, it has time for quiet moments which amuse and entertain around the action, and it throws in enough complications to keep most audience members awake.

Upon hearing about the bank robbery, the bank’s founder Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) gets into a tizzy, threatening to deluge his adult diapers. He instantly hires Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to find a way to protect one tiny piece of his legacy held captive in a safety deposit box in the bank, which had no record of existing.

Madeline clearly is some type of power player who knows everyone and can somehow magically get into the bank, with the support of the Mayor of New York, who sported a suspiciously Third Reich accent. I kept waiting for him to scream “Schnell!” at some hapless deli owner. Instead, out of nowhere, he calls Jodie Foster’s character something I’m surprised the A list actress tolerates from anyone. Seriously, she could probably afford to have his ancestors killed back in prehistory.

As a character she comes over all unnecessary. She smiles this smarmy smile, and speaks in a smarmy way, but the flick could have survived wonderfully with her character cut out.
I’m not suggesting they should have had me in the role instead, oh good golly no, but they could have saved on several millions. I’d have done it for scale. That’s all I’m saying.

So the plot chugs along, until one of the detectives realises, “wait a second, these crims are smarter than us!” Then it’s on for young and old.

There are several flash forwards to after the crime, when the cops are interrogating the hostages, where it’s clear to us that it’s unclear as to what the outcome could possibly be, even with the information given away. Denzel gets to charmingly overact in ways that don’t detract or distract from the film. Even the sexist ogling of a well-endowed young lady with a concrete-penetrating Queens accent (think The Nanny, now unthink it if you can) is handled well.

It’s a pleasure watching it all unfold, I have to say. But the ending is way, way too neat and tidy. Incredibly so. I find it highly implausible as well, but that hardly matters. I still can’t believe the government led by John Howard has been in power for ten years, and looks to be in power for twenty more. Long may He reign.

So with my credulity or otherwise in question, I can’t say that the overall explanation really gels with reality, but it doesn’t really matter. In these heist / con job films, the ones being fooled the most aren’t supposed to be the other characters, it’s supposed to be the audience, up until the very end. Here, it’s not so much the ending, but the mild amusement, gentle laughter and prostate exams we received along the way that make it worthwhile, or at least tolerable.

There were lots of little scenes that I liked. A kid trapped with everyone else plays his portable Playstation. Not content with the violent atmosphere surrounding him in the bank, he plays a game clearly intended to take the piss out of the Grand Theft Auto games, wherein a no-good hood does a drive-by on a fool, leaps out of his lowrider blasting caps into said fool’s ass, before plonking a grenade into his mouth to finish him off.

The scenes with a construction worker helping the police out by helping them translate the language picked up through surveillance are priceless to me. A different director or different editor would have balked at including it, but it was so New York and so funny that I’m glad they left it in. As with a scene with the police interrogating the Sikh bank teller, they’re vintage Spike Lee, but without the didactics or belabouring the point.

In another scene, the fixer Foster plays and Denzel’s character conduct an argument perfectly situated beneath multiple posters saying “WE WILL NEVER FORGET”, supposedly referring to the terrorist attack of five year’s ago. I prefer to think of it as being a reminder that even actors of the calibre of these two could be in films as bad as Nell and The Preacher’s Wife.

The repartee between the leader of the crims, the detectives and the fixer are all written and acted pretty well, and those are the kinds of scenes I love, so, considering everything else, consider me more than happy with this whole package.

Sure it’s nothing overly special, and most of the highly-talented people involved can do this in their sleep, but it’s still enjoyable to see this kind of flick done and done well.

7 times I would have been happy to examine the evidence in the alleged case of the violation of Section 34 DD out of 10

‘Money can't buy you love’
’Why thank you, Mr. Bank Robber’. – the economics of romance, Inside Man.