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August 23, 2006

DVD Review: Inside Man

Brief review: As David Spade would say, "I liked it better when it was called Quick Change and Clive Owen was played by Bill Murray."

Reprinted spoiler-free conclusion from the review's end:

It's worth a rental, as I have a rule that if a movie is good for half of its running length, then it's a good movie compared to 90% of the other crap out there, which tends to go off the rails within twenty minutes. It's just overrated, and not nearly as clever or innovative as it believes, and Spike Lee, while more restrained than in, say, Do The Right Thing, is still fundamentally annoying and an NYU student-film director making movies about "issues," albeit with a very, very high budget for a student film.

So, see it, it's not bad, but don't buy into the hype, and be prepared to be annoyed an awful lot along the way by Lee's politics and some dubious plotting.

Addendum: Although this review reads like a pan, I didn't mean it to be a full-on pan. The cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Owen (or is it mouse-and-cat?) is terrific and engaging, two smart guys trying to outsmart each other. I was happy to see Denzel drop the standard stall/make friends negotiation playbook and say, "Let's cut through the bullshit. You know how this is going to go down. You ain't getting any bus or plane. You're too smart to believe that. Didn't you see Dog Day Afternoon?" (Paraphrased.)

I just wish Clive Owen had responded, "Why yes, I did see that. Too bad about Fredo. But didn't you ever see Quick Change?"

The trouble is really the ending, which fails to satisfy. At least for me. The ride, however, is pretty enjoayble.

MILD SPOILER WARNING

I've tried to be elipitical about things, but any review gives things away. That's why I stopped reading critics' reviews of any movie containing any sort of mystery or twist. They always give it away.

Longer review follows.


I didn't realize the movie was directed by Spike Lee. When I did, I was prepared to hate it from the start. However, Spike Lee's normal directorial show-offishness was more restrained, though he was still doing a lot of that crap, like direct address and fixating on distracting "social issues" for no particularly good reason.

Almost everyone in Spike Lee's universe is an ethnic type of some kind, verging on caricature. Jews, especially. Jews, it seems, cannot speak a single line of dialogue without saying "mesugeneh." I don't think he's antisemitic so much as he's determined to always make movies about ethnic identity. Most minor characters are defined by skin color, religious background, accent, etc.

The PC crap gets annoying with a Sikh complaining about profiling at airports. That kind of thing.

He also continues his recent jag of featuring images that recall 9/11, again, for no good reason, except to announce, "This movie is more meaningful than your typical popcorn fare. See? I have a big 'Never Forget' American flag in prominent background; I am relevant and addressing Big Issues in American life." Though how such an image addresses any issue, or how it advances or adds to the story in any way, is one of the big mysteries of the film, and a sadly unresolved one.

Although the movie really sells us on how "brilliant" the bank robbery is, I'm sorry, I just wanted one character to say, "It's not that brilliant. I saw all of this in Quick Change. There it was brilliant. Here it's just sort of a rehash. Let's just go rent the video from Blockbuster and see what these guys' playbook is."

And it is the Quick Change playbook, down to the letter. I mean, disguised thieves, blending in with the hostages, wiring the bank with explosives (or so they say, just as Bill Murray claimed), and making demands for buses and airplanes they have no intent of using. (In fairness, Clive Owen does not request, as Bill Murray did, a monster truck as well.)

I admit, the outfits the bank robbers use here -- black hooded overalls with white masks and sunglasses -- give them a creepy, ghostly presense that does look pretty cool. But this is a drama, so it wouldn't work if they were all just dressed as clowns.

Even the structure is the same -- a game of wits between two figures, both of whom are sympathetic -- and the conclusion is the same, too. Just as in Quick Change, there's another, bigger crime for the detective to unravel, making the bank robbery a somewhat secondary consideration.

There are some premises too good to not re-use. Jagged Edge introduced (as far as I know) the idea of getting away with murder by conducting a series of "serial killer murders" and then making the true target just a "random" victim of that serial killer. Great premise, probably could work, and it's been used as a plot device dozens of times since then in movies and books.

Similarly, anyone who was expecting Quick Change to just be a silly Bill Murray comedy was pleasantly surprised by the clever heist, one that made the viewer say, "HEY! That could actually work!" So I guess I can't begrudge the screenwriter for being as smitten with Bill Murray's scheme as I was.

The first hour of the movie I liked an awful lot. I like having to try to guess at where a movie is heading, and the first hour my mind was whirring with (mostly wrong) guesses. Denzel Washington is introduced as a cop under investigation for the theft of $140,000 from a coke bust; so the screenwriter makes one wonder from the start if Denzel is the "Inside Man" of the title.

The second half, though, reveals that there's not much to the mystery; it's pretty unsatisfying. I don't want to give away anything, but let's just say I find it rather implausible that bank robbers would show up for a heist with Hollywood props. And it's a bit like the sad recent episodes of Law & Order, where the actual crime being investigated is not the real crime; the real crime is of course committed by some stock figure despised by the left.

In the end I couldn't help think this was a pro-terrorist allegory. Why?

1) The criminals wear masks.

2) They hide amidst the civilian population, thus preventing effective targeting of them.

3) They are, however, justified in what they do, and in fact are using the most humane methods possible to achieve their ends, and act honorably and even nobly.

I don't know. Maybe that's a stretch, but I couldn't help seeing that angle.

There's also a plot fut-the-wuck thing. Clive Owen's crew uses a daring, but extremely risky, method of escape from the bank. Clive Owen himself, on the other hand, employs a far less daring, and not risky at all, method. The question is begged: Why couldn't his crew use the same method he did? There's plenty of, errr, room for them to do so. There are two answers here, neither of them very good:

1) Because then you wouldn't have a movie;

or

2) Because then you get the payoff pun of the film's title. "Inside Man? Ohhhhh.... Inside Mannnnnn..." But I don't know if that bit of cute punnery is really a good reason for Owen's confederates to basically risk a 95% chance of being arrested.

Everyone's good here, including Willem Dafoe who has a fairly minor role as a SWAT team leader but makes an impression, with the exception of Jodie Foster. She plays some shadowy, hyper-connected fixer for the political and economic elite, but she plays the role with a girlishyl flirtatious cutesiness I didn't buy. I guess that's more innovative than the obvious choice -- playing her as an android-like ice princess -- but I just didn't buy the Cutsie Girl act. And, anyway, the cutsie girl act is just a cover for the actual android ice princess underneath. Obvious or not, I think she would have been better playing it more Nicole Kidman and less Sandra Bullock.

Christopher Plummer should pretty much be in every movie made, just as Michael Caine should be. When are these guys going to costar together, is what I want to know.

In the thank God for small favors department, the cops are not, I repeat not, the bad guys, and in fact are pretty competent. Even the SWAT guys, sort of set up as the brainless kill-crazy lunatics, are pretty restrained. There's a tension between Washington and Defoe about the right way to deal with the situation, though, and of course the Good Guy prefers a smarter, "mental" approach, whereas the Less Good Guy prefers a kick in the door, shoot 'em up approach. I can't help but feel the FEC should investigate Spike Lee for making a multimillion dollar in-kind donation to John Kerry For President '08.

And, while the cops aren't the bad guys (even the ones who are not as nuanced as Denzel Washington), I have trouble buying a white cop would say the word "spic" to his black superior officer, and then very nearly say "nigger" on top of that.

It's worth a rental, as I have a rule that if a movie is good for half of its running length, then it's a good movie compared to 90% of the other crap out there, which tends to go off the rails within twenty minutes. It's just overrated, and not nearly as clever or innovative as it believes, and Spike Lee, while more restrained than in, say, Do The Right Thing, is still fundamentally annoying and an NYU student-film director making movies about "issues," albeit with a very, very high budget for a student film.

So, see it, it's not bad, but don't buy into the hype, and be prepared to be annoyed an awful lot along the way.


Addendum: Although this review reads like a pan, I didn't mean it to be a full-on pan. The cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Owen (or is it mouse-and-cat?) is terrific and engaging, two smart guys trying to outsmart each other. I was happy to see Denzel drop the standard stall/make friends negotiation playbook and say, "Let's cut through the bullshit. You know how this is going to go down. You ain't getting any bus or plane. You're too smart to believe that. Didn't you see Dog Day Afternoon ?" (Paraphrased.)

I just wish Clive Owen had responded, "Why yes, I did see that. Too bad about Fredo. But didn't you ever see Quick Change?"

The trouble is really the ending, which fails to satisfy. At least for me. The ride, however, is pretty enjoayble.

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posted by Ace at 09:21 AM

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