Inside Man (2006)

Jodie Foster doesn’t do bad movies. That’s a fact, and if you take a look at her resume, you will agree. She picks her projects methodically, doesn’t overkill us with 2-3 films a year, and always, always leaves behind a great, appealing, real character. Even her little cameo in “A Very Long Engagement” was precious. Her films might be misunderstood, or before their time (Contact, Nell), even formulaic (Panic Room, Maverick), but she still manages to elevate the quality of the film, making the scene(s) more grounded, and characters easier to relate to. In “Inside Man” Jodie plays a secondary character – her appearance and role are minimal, yet necessary to establish the moral center of the movie. But man, does she steal those few fleeting scenes. Not to say the leads are weak – they are indeed very good. The problem with male leads of this film is that they’re stuck in “been there, done that” mode. The roles fit them both, but the roles are quite tired.

Denzel Washington is simply playing a familiar character – a detective/negotiator in charge of resolving a bank heist as peacefully as possible. He’s done this schtick before (Training Day, Out of Time, Man on Fire were all variations on the theme – and these are recent films). Same goes for Clive Owen – who’s been picking the most unusual roles lately, but here looks and sounds very familiar to the “intelligent brute” character he played in Sin City, Closer, Gosford Park. The boys are exceptional in their roles, at times it looks the entire scene revolved around a specific person saying a line in a specific, unique way. I have to doubt these two roles were written for Denzel and Clive. But that’s the problem – we have three amazing actors, with an incredible range, and we watch two of them go through familiar paces. Were the writers taking an easy way out?

At least for the first half of the movie, we watch a well-paced, predictable film. Of course, it’s a heist film – so there’s always an element of a twist, or multiple twists. So we patiently sit and wait for the characters to turn out to have different motives, different exits. But why follow that formula when you can break it, freshen it up, at the risk of abandoning the genre? Again, the movie is smart in many ways, and doesn’t treat anyone like an idiot. However, its plot and characters do (at first) seem to be stuck in a predictable genre.

What’s predictable to me? Well, if you’ve seen “Quick Change” with Bill Murray, many scenes from “Inside Man” will be very familiar to you. Nope, this is not a spoiler, and I didn’t ruin the ending for anyone. Remember, this movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot, in fact, the similarities with other heist films might even be done on purpose. But to reference another film, a lighter, comedic film? I don’t know – seems like lazy writing. Why watch something that tries to fool you into thinking you’re following a familiar route – and then takes you on a strange journey? Why not instead introduce a familiar setting, and make the ENTIRE route unique, as opposed to extending a familiar plot line?

I have no other complaints about the film. The heist and standoff are well done. The entire film is based on a series of conversations – between cops, between hostages, between robbers, and of course, between bank managers. If you remember last year’s “Hostage”, it’s more about the characters, and how they relate to each other, rather than firearms and stolen goods. These exchanges are the heart of the movie – the words tell us so much more than actions, you just sit back and smile at the quality of the material. Maybe that’s why I’m so frustrated with familiar elements – the movie often delivers great, quotable scenes, only to kick back and lean on re-hash for a few minutes. I call that lazy writing. If you can deliver unique, engaging dialogue for more than half of the movie (that’s a lot of lines, you know), why recycle the rest? Keep writing new stuff.

Plus, the obligatory racist monologue – why does Spike Lee have to stick this into everything he does? There are two such monologues, both carbon copies of any other Spike Lee movie. The white man is keeping me down, the white man is the problem, the white man is the one who should be judged. Sure, these lines are accurate, especially in the universe of this film (the movie takes place in Manhattan), but are they relevant? Sure, racism is rampant in America (how else would you describe such popularity and hatred of last year’s Crash), but what does it have to do with a heist movie?

Anyway, if you are willing to overlook familiar tones, and obligatory Spike Lee elements, “Inside Man” is a smart, well-timed thriller that goes well beyond a typical bank-heist formula. It brings in characters from the left field, and takes conversations into dangerous territory. At the end of the day, it delivers an intelligent, engaging story, and a few memorable characters along with it. And a few neat camera tricks during the interrogation scenes.

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