A review of “Inside Man” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for violence, language and mature themes

Run Time: 2 hour, 8 minutes

 

 

Spike Lee knows how to coax novelty out of conventional drama. Add to the mix the excellent Denzel Washington as a gritty hostage negotiator and you can count me in.

On an ordinary New York City afternoon a group of jumpsuit-clad “painters” enters the Manhattan Trust Bank and declares robbery. Everyone down on the floor or we’ll shoot, hand over your cell phones and keys, etc, etc.

But this is more than your cookie-cutter theft. Mastermind Dalton Russell (the smooth as silk Clive Owen) has a Plan, and nothing is going to deter him from getting exactly what he came for. Russell and company order their hostages to strip to their skivvies and proceed to dress them in matching jumpsuits and facial disguises, thus confusing law enforcement agents who are watching on hidden cameras and who can’t distinguish the perpetrators from the victims.

Tenacious hostage negotiator Keith Frazier is having none of it. He bides his time, navigating the jurisdictional one-upmanship typical of Manhattan emergencies while fending off unwelcome questions regarding a little Internal Affairs issue involving a missing $140K.

Rather unexpectedly nothing goes as planned. Russell maintains his cool, insistent yet detached and infuriatingly sure of himself; a step ahead yet in no hurry to get there. On the outside there’s another storm brewing; villainous bank board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is clearly more concerned with retrieving the contents of his safety deposit box than in the loss of cash or salvaging the lives that hang in the balance.

Enter steely stealth power broker Madeline White (Jodie Foster) who slithers onto the scene to deftly manhandle the negotiators and protect Case’s interests at all costs.

Lee knows his way around a bloodless thriller; his brilliant “25th Hour” was equally edgy and dissonant. “Inside Man” maintains that brand of discordant tension, keeping the viewer guessing while trotting out comfortable clichés for familiarity’s sake.

Somewhere in the second act Lee loses himself, drawing out the walk and the talk with excess narrative baggage that slims down in the home stretch. Hip score is all jazzy sharps and flats; a nice counterbalance to standard thriller elevator music.

Lee’s trademark ethnic indignation is accounted for but not overpowering. Washington and Owen chew up the scenery, clearly relishing the opportunity to deliver quality performances in a quality project.