Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) is a self-assured criminal looking to pull off the perfect bank heist. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is a hostage negotiator assigned to keep Russell in check during his siege on the bank. When it becomes clear that Frazier has no control of the heist, he begins a battle of wits with Russell to save the hostages and to salvage his poor career reputation. The situation is complicated further by Madeline White (Jodie Foster), an intermediary who is trying to protect a provocative document locked inside a safe deposit box for her particularly important client (Christopher Plummer).
“Inside Man” presents director Spike Lee a screenplay (written by Russell Gewirtz) that has no political subtext, no social commentary, and no speeches. For Lee, this is massive change of direction for his career, and after his humiliating 2004 misfire, “She Hate Me,” “Man” offers the exceptionally original filmmaker a chance to regain his mojo.
Lee takes the challenge to heart, and he weaves an interesting fabric with “Man.” Set in his beloved New York City, Lee plays down his traditional metropolis flavorings, instead focusing with laser precision on the crime and the fallout, keeping the nonessential storytelling to a bare minimum. It’s a huge achievement for Lee, and boosts the energy of “Man” in significant ways. The script plays with time and perspectives, but Lee keeps the story focused with only the smallest use of his old tricks, and a newfound sense to put his politics aside for a moment – though there are pointed and necessary jabs at “Grand Theft Auto” video games and gangsta rap stars that embrace racism and greed to entertain impressionable youth. “Man” is a superb return to form for Lee, who had long ago lost his way (save for 2002’s “25th Hour”) in the pursuit of his runaway ego and blurred vision.
In his fourth collaboration with Lee is Denzel Washington (“Malcolm X,” “He Got Game,” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The actor lends “Man” the spark it needs to get the tension running, along with bits of humor that are entirely unexpected. Interestingly, Washington’s Frazier is only one third of the story here, robbing the actor of the starring role he’s used to, and the switch suits him fine. “Man” doesn’t ask Washington to carry the film, only to hold up his end of the suspense, which the actor accomplishes terrifically. In fact, Owen, Foster, and Washington all do such fine work creating conflict and expressing disgust with each other, it feels a shame that this once humming, spunky thriller has to come crashing back down to Earth.
It’s the last 20 minutes of the film where “Man” begins to crumble, and for two very specific reasons: the first of which is the screenplay, which sweats hard trying to stay one step ahead of the audience for the majority of the running time, and then suddenly changes course. The last moments of the film feature the characters tying up loose ends that have already been seen to conclusion earlier by Lee, thus grinding the film to a halt. Any thriller worth its thrills knows better than to reveal all the cards and still continue to play.
The second reason is what I would like to coin as “The Denzelian Moment.” In almost every film Washington has done in recent years, there’s been at least one scene where the actors gets a grandstanding moment of comeuppance, typically to a Caucasian character, as if to remind the audience that no matter what the situation looks like, Denzel is still in charge. “Inside Man” spends the entire film showing the audience that Frazier wasn’t in control, and in fact he’s a step behind all the other participants. But Lee and Washington aren’t satisfied with an accurate portrayal of a cop in over his head, and they turn Frazier into Shaft for the last reel, vacuuming out any sense of integrity “Inside Man” was enjoying up to this point. The film is tremendous entertainment, and it’s an utter joy to see Spike back in action, but the filmmaker can’t control himself completely, and he exits “Inside Man” on an infuriating whimper, and not at all the bang that was intricately promised in the opening moments of the film.Rating: B