Inside Man (March 23/06)
Inside Man has understandably been referred to as director Spike Lee's most mainstream effort to date, though there's certainly no mistaking the film for anything other than a Spike Lee joint. The filmmaker peppers the story with a variety of expected elements - including ostentatious instances of style and a few pointed comments on race relations in America - but this is generally a straight-forward (yet undeniably overlong) piece of work.
The story revolves around a cocky criminal named Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his attempts to pull off "the perfect bank robbery." Along with his team, Dalton casually strolls into a major metropolitan bank and proceeds to hold everyone inside hostage. Negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is assigned the case, though he's currently under investigation for allegedly stealing a hefty chunk of change. Also thrown into the mix is a shifty corporate millionaire (played by Christopher Plummer) who enlists the services of a shiftier corporate weasel (Jodie Foster) to ensure that his interests within the bank's walls are protected.
Though Inside Man initially comes off as a tense thriller (stemming from a surprisingly taut sequence in which Dalton and his crew take over the bank), Lee - along with screenwriter Russell Gewirtz - bogs the film down with needless subplots and bizarre digressions. This is despite an opening half hour that's actually quite entertaining, as Lee effectively establishes the situation and various characters with an easy, distinctly laid-back sense of style. The loose tone even extends to the heist itself, which appears to play out precisely as Dalton has planned and consequently doesn't offer much in the way of thrills (Heat this is not).
The inclusion of some seriously colorful supporting characters undoubtedly undermines the reality of the situation, while the whole subplot involving Plummer and Foster's hijinks feels as though it belongs in a different movie altogether. Both these elements contribute to the film's unmistakably erratic pace, a problem that's exacerbated by Lee's strange reluctance to allow the story to conclude organically (the movie goes on far, far longer than it really needs to, primarily to serve that aforementioned superfluous subplot).
And yet despite the film's sundry faults, there are enough positive elements here to warrant a recommendation (mild as it may be) - with Chiwetel Ejiofor's scene-stealing turn as Washington's partner an obvious highlight (Washington and Owen, likewise, are expectedly superb).