I once had a conversation about a Spike Lee film that I hadn't yet seen. I asked "How was it? Was it too much?" to which a friend, who had, replied "Of course it was too much" and went on to sing the film's praises. Whether we buy into it or not, this is now what we've come to expect from Lee, a general absence of restraint. Particularly
with regards to films like the ludicrous Bamboozled and the meandering, thoughtless sex romp She Hate Me, for a while it seemed hat something had gone horribly wrong and that soon Spike Lee would have all the cultural relevance of someone on a street corner
screaming into a bullhorn about The Man.
Perhaps because we're waiting for it to be too much, Spike Lee'srecent film, Inside Man, catches us off guard from the outset. A white man in a cell tells us he planned the perfect bank robbery, already new territory for Lee. Following this we get very standard, almost understated shots of New York's streets waking up and are treated to
Hindi rap, a song called Chaiyya Chaiyya, which again takes you by surprise, like someone had mixed and matched soundtracks from some other film's reel. But the song is good. So good you make a note to look for it once the movie is over, which by then you're already hoping won't be anytime soon.
Because what follows is a sharp and elegantly told story that delivers surprises at regular intervals and adds up to something more than the sum of its parts. The man in the cell is Dalton Russell, played with unblinking coolness by Clive Owen, who had promised to show us how his robbery was executed. He and his crew march into a large Manhattan bank dressed as painters, proceed to take all customers and employees hostage, suit them up in the same painter disguises and regularly release them to the mass confusion of authorities. Bursts of violence ensue, of course, but it's never excessive as it's really Owen's dead stare and casual pacing through the bank halls that deliver the thrills. Only someone like Denzel Washington, as Detective Keith Frazier, could save us now.
Washington is an actor who is at this point so comfortable in his ownskin and so in control of everything and everyone around him that one is almost moved to cast a vote for him as next president of the country. In one scene, after surveying the hostages, he speaks face-to-face with the bank robber and takes one fluid leap from warm, sincere near-empathy, wondering if maybe they could just go "get a drink," to uncorked rage with Owen in a headlock. "It's either prison whites or a toe tag, make up your mind!"he snarls into his ear.
The cat and mouse game gets more thorny when Jodie Foster enters thepicture as Madeline White, hired by the shady bank president to resolve the matter of the robbery on his terms. Her appearance vexes Frazier as it gradually reveals a tangled web of corruption and string-pulling More dirty secrets and multiple twists are at hand.
Still, amid all the heisting, Lee doesn't forget leave his mark, maybe veering off-script on occasion but never without good reason. Thereis a discussion between Frazier and a prejudiced officer about the cop's colorful jargon. There is the boy playing his handheld videogame, content gushing with blood and gore and racialstereotyping, about which Russell comments, as he cradles his M16, "I have to talk to your father about this game." And there are the
numerous side characters who, in the end, give the film its true zing. We get the fed up Sikh met with more fear once he takes off his disguise to expose his turban, the tough, buxom Italian bombshell telling her male interrogators "I could just bend over and pick up a pencil if you guys want," the Albanian woman called in because Frazier needed an impromptu translation from someone on the street and the stuffy bank president condescendingly offering use of his private jet to the city police department. They amount collectively to what Lee does best - capturing the rhythm and mood of a given moment in time. And here that moment is post-9/11 New York, a feisty, nervous place that miraculously manages to remain a cohesive whole. It not only makes you care more about the characters caught up in the crime because they seem so real, it makes you feel for the city it portrays,caught in its own frightened times.
So Lee has chosen to make a diagonal move with a movie like Inside Man, something purely for entertainment on its face, but written with the kind of intelligent turns in the story we don't expect and brimming with new angles on injustice, racism, money and power. As is maybe characteristic of Lee, he doesn't hide his beef with The Man, that Man we all want to see someone stick it to, but here, having turned down the heat on his target, Lee lets the audience relish the roasting with a lower, steadier flame. Like his title, he's gone from inside the mainstream entertainment system this time and has come up with his most revolutionary movie in years.
Nathaniel Missildine has had work published in McSweeney's, Opium,
Hobart, Salon and Boulevard, among others. His novel, Far North, is