Friday, November 9, 2012

Cinema 2005: Enigmatic thriller leaves you guessing

Everybody’s getting his -- whether it’s a bottle of booze and a flop on sis’s sofa or stolen swag and a promotion to detective first grade.

Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” from 2006 starts out fine with its depiction of police procedures, showing how a diverse NYPD operates, from the observant cop on the beat to negotiatiors and S.W.A.T teams. Except, that is, for one major, narrative-wrecking omission: the cops fail to employ a K-9 unit when searching a large building for hidden bad guys. Oops.

Denzel Washington plays Detective Frazier, a caustic cop who is suspected of being on the take. Jodie Foster is Madeleine White, some kind of man-eating powerbroker living by sharpened wits, instead of sharpened teeth, but no less a cannibal for that. “You’re a good cop,” White tells Frazier, “the city needs you.” White recognizes the usefulness of a driven detective who cuts corners and she knows it would be a shame if Frazier were to follow his more altruistic motives and end up jeopardizing the cozy positions of several exposed big shots. Besides, she would rather leave Frazier compromised in her wake, if not completely in her stable.

White earns her lavish lifestyle by making the unscrupulous look classy; she walks through walls to pull strings for the powerful. As bloodless as a white-knuckle, she doesn't flash leg, she flexes leg muscle. But Foster's portrayal does not reveal White's psychology and ultimately falls flat.

Christopher Plummer plays a rich banker whose dark secret is at the center of the heist. Plummer bites into his role like a bon vivant and lets the juice run down his face. Unfortunately, his character's personal crisis never rings true.

Willem Dafoe recreates himself here as an Emergency Services Unit Police commander. Dafoe is so convincing you feel as if he really is a 20-year veteran of the job.

The script, by Russell Gewirtz, dares to reference Shakespeare. But even in the Bard's farcical scenes human motivation drives the plot. “Inside Man” is not interested in the whys and wherefores. Instead the "bank robber” (Clive Owen) looks into the camera, warns us to pay attention because he never repeats himself and then asks rhetorically why he is robbing this bank. “Because I can” is his useless, catchphraee answer. And of course, Owen’s character does in fact repeat himself.

Still it's wonderful when Spike Lee films life in the Big Apple. Here the vibrant rhythms of the City lend energy and chutzpah to this quizzical thriller, while Washington's ambitious and ambiguous hero gives it human layers. The pace of the movie is spot on but the caper is all wrong. As a whole, the movie resembles too closely an exercise in futility. “Inside Man” does not deliver the answers an audience expects at the conclusion of a thriller. Perhaps it is just as well "Inside Man 2" did not get made.

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