Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) sits in what appears to be a prison cell and he has a story to tell us, the story of the perfect crime. But how perfect can it be if he is stuck in a cell? Everything will be explained, and the tale begins with a van full of painters pulling up in front of a New York bank, but as they enter the building, their faces covered by masks and sunglasses, they secure the doors, throw smoke canisters onto the floor and order everyone to lie down on the floor immediately. Managing to control the panic, the customers and staff now realise they are hostages; a cop outside walks past and notices the doors have been locked and grows supicious, suspicions which are confirmed when one of the robbers orders him to retreat. Soon, the place is surrounded by police, but are they playing right into the gang's hands?
Heist movies made a big comeback in the nineteen-nineties, so Inside Man was in danger of looking like it had turned up a little too late in the day to garner the attention it deserved. With a script by Russell Gewirtz, his first to be made into a feature film, this was a change of tack for director Spike Lee from socially conscious drama to an outright thriller. Lee is so forthright in his political views and unafraid to share them that now every film of his is scoured for social commentary, but this effort was a solid genre piece where any commentary was relegated to background flavour and this was to the work's benefit, resulting in an intelligent, ice cool thriller.
Our hero is Detective Keith Frazier, played by Lee regular Denzel Washington who is in his element here. What's notable about the script is that the three adversaries that create the tension by pulling in different directions are all really smart and instead of making them more approachable by including goofy humour, it gives them the cunning and determination of circling sharks, hidden by their polite exteriors. With his sidekick Detective Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Frazier is assigned to the case because the man who would normally take charge is unavailable, and this in spite of corruption charges against him - we know they won't stick, but it gives Washington an obscurity to his intentions at first.
However, his motives are shown to be pure as the situation draws on into the night. Inside, the crooks have ordered the hostages to give up their mobile phones, and the one idiot who doesn't pays for it in physical violence, then to take off their clothes and dress in overalls with scarves covering their faces, just as the gang are wearing. We know they have somehow got away with this due to the flashbacks which start early and feature the hostages, and perhaps the gang as well, being interrogated by Frazier and Mitchell, who don't appear to be getting anywhere. There's another level to this when the head of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) becomes involved, and brings in a fixer in the shape of Madeline White (a calm, cool and collected Jodie Foster) to help.
Madeline is there to strike a deal with the still-anonymous Dalton, because there's something being kept in the bank vaults that Case wants nobody to know about and certainly doesn't want anyone getting their hands on, which is curious - if he didn't want anyone ever seeing it, why didn't he simply destroy it as it completely incriminates him? That plotting hiccup aside, the rest of the narrative is honed to precision, and Lee offers his cast plenty of opportunities, from the stars down to the characterful supporting roles, creating a mixture of personalities and races that stays true to the film's New York setting. Reminiscent of cult seventies thrillers like Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 123, Inside Man holds its cards close to its chest, and the mystery element is well carried: couple that to a collection of professional, in control performances and this emerges as one of Lee's most purely entertaining films. Music by Terence Blanchard.
Talented, prolific American director who has courted more controversy than most with his out-spoken views and influenced an entire generation of black film-makers. Lee made his impressive debut with the acerbic sex comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, while many consider his study of New York race relations Do the Right Thing to be one of the best films of the 80s.
Lee's films tend to mix edgy comedy and biting social drama, and range from the superb (Malcolm X, Clockers, Summer of Sam) to the less impressive (Mo Better Blues, Girl 6), but are always blessed with passion and intelligence. Lee has acted in many of his films and has also directed a wide range of music videos, commercials and documentaries. Inside Man saw a largely successful try at the thriller genre, Oldboy was a misguided remake, but he welcomed some of his best reactions of his career to true crime story BlacKkKlansman.