Saturday, April 08, 2006

Inside Man


Dir: Spike Lee (School Daze, Girl 6)

Here is a another genre that has very few poor entries: the heist film. And this is one of the better ones produced in quite some time. Mr. Lee, in an expected turn as a socially-conscious director, uses the heist as a backdrop for playing out broader social critiques of institutional law-enforcement (homeland security as NYPD), racial profiling, and complicity as the instrument of evil (further elaboration requires unveiling plot twists). In a refreshing take on the heist film, Lee humanizes both the law-enforcement agents (in particular, Denzel Washington, in an uncharacteristically subdued performance as the lead hostage negotiator) and the criminals (lead by Clive Owen). Both serve complex yet noble ends, unlike the institutionalized power that profits off the misfortunes of others (a very Lee-type theme). Given Lee's history as a director, one can easily, and justifiably, read this film as a provocative, perhaps controversial, metaphor of the American response to terrorism. The cops-robbers-bank owner relationship is strangely familiar to the military/homeland security footsoldiers-terrorists-Bush White House triangle (the robbers-terrorists analogy is by far the most debatable). Spike's message, Support our Troops but not the Government (and given Hersh breaking the story on the Bush Administration's possible plan for a nuclear strike on Iran, he's got a point).

The movie reminded me a lot of Riffifi, an outstanding film that uses realism to build tension instead of cheap narrative tricks. Inside Man is one of the most realistic heist/hostage films I have seen: a lot of waiting around, a battle of wills and patience between cops and robbers. Washington spends a substantial amount of time in the diner around the corner from the bank, discussing strategy and interviewing released hostages.

What bothered me most about Inside Man had nothing to do with the film itself, but the discourse of the film critic community. I read countless reviews that lauded Spike Lee for using his directorial acumen to bring new life into a well-worn, but durable, genre. Yes, Lee is a bit preachy at points, and some of his films are clunkers, but I could not help but reading some of these reviews as possessing a subtext of, "thank goodness that uppity black director has used his immeasurable talent to create a film we white folks can really sink our teeth into." It may be a safer film, but it still has bite. Loved the soundtrack. Solid film that is a joy to watch.