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Spike Lee's 'Inside Man' is a Cool Nugget of New York Perfection

By Petr Knava | Film | December 14, 2020 |

By Petr Knava | Film | December 14, 2020 |


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(Warning: Here be spoilers!)

Inside Man is a 2006 Spike Lee bank heist film starring Denzel Washington.

A whole lotta sentences and paragraphs are gonna follow that now, but really, they don’t need to. Those twelve words already tell the story.

But where’s the fun in that?

Inside Man follows Denzel Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier as he tries to keep up with Clive Owen’s mastermind bank robber during a tense 24-hour hostage situation at a large Wall Street bank. The film cost $45 million to make and it earned $184.4 million around the world, becoming Spike Lee’s most financially successful film to date. A non-franchise, sub-$50 million dollar film with no superheroes in it that went number 1 at the box office. If that doesn’t make 2006 feel like a lifetime ago I don’t know what will. Inside Man was a mature, gripping, and funny movie made for adults, and though it was successful both critically and commercially at the time it seems to me these days that it’s been a little bit forgotten.

That’s a real shame.

And a perfect excuse for me to gush all over it.

Because I love every little thing about it.

I love the way the film opens—with Clive Owen absolutely eye-fu*king the sh*t out of the camera in a close-up in some mysterious darkened space.

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It almost seems like a theatre monologue. Indeed that’s Owen’s job here, to set the stage for what we’re about to see:

My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I’ve told you my name: that’s the Who. The Where could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there’s a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. The What is easy: recently I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. That’s also the When. As for the Why: beyond the obvious financial motivation, it’s exceedingly simple… because I can. Which leaves us only with the How; and therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.

Firstly, ‘Dalton Russell’? Great goddamn film name. It’s no ‘Stacker Pentecost’ but it’s still fantastic, just dripping with ludicrous, almost cartoon-like masculinity. Dalton. Russell. Okay, man. Sure. Whatever you say. What did you have for breakfast, Dalton? Some of that granite that you chiselled off your name? What cracks me up even more is that Owen’s steely and determined Dalton is paired off against Washtingon’s smooth and confident hostage negotiator, who is called…Keith. I’ve already mentioned it, but it bears focusing in on again, because it’s a Denzel Washington character called…Keith. That just never fails to tickle me.

Anyway, good old Keith doesn’t show up until a bit later. It’s up to Clive Owen to take our hand and lead us into this story with that opening monologue. And the guy nails it. It would be easy to come off as quite ludicrous with a grandiose, somewhat self-consciously epic speech like that, and the whole film would start off on the back foot and limping out of the gate, but Owen—with his intense stare and craggy handsomeness—sells it entirely. We believe him, and we are one hundred percent intrigued by what we are witnessing and about to witness. What is this man’s plan? How is he going to rob this bank? And where is he trapped? We see the small space he’s confined in, keeping himself busy by reading and doing push-ups, and it certainly has some of the hallmarks of a prison cell. But he tells us confidently that things are not as they appear, and we should be paying close attention.

Confidence. That sums up the opening of Inside Man, and the film as a whole. It’s assured, tightly controlled film-making that perfectly balances Hollywood popcorn sensibility and more thought-provoking, daring material, and I just love it.

I love the fact that Washington’s Detective is teamed up with a character played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. I am a huge fan of Ejiofor. I think he’s one of the best actors working today and he excels in the comparatively small role here just as much as he does with bigger roles elsewhere. Washington and he have an easy, charming chemistry that speaks to years of a shared history of having to deal with all manner of bullsh*t flying in from all directions, and whenever the duo get a moment to do a classic ‘walk ‘n’ talk’ in Inside Man you’re guaranteed to get a banterous gem or two. Like this exchange near the end of the movie:

‘Keith lemme see your shoe.’
‘What?’
‘Lemme see your shoe!’
‘Why?’
‘Cause I have never seen anybody put their foot that far up a guy’s ass!’

Just after that line, Washington laughs. But that’s no way to describe what actually happens. Because I mean, Washington laughs. It’s a laugh that’s somehow both overdone and ridiculous, and yet perfectly naturalistic and organic. Which is a fine enough way of summing up the entirety of that performance. I’m not gonna attempt to reinvent the wheel here when it comes to analysing Mr. Washington and his particular brand of solar system-sized charisma. That strange man who skulks around Pajiba HQ as if he goddamn owned the place already put it best:

I’ve said it before, but it warrants repeating here: Denzel Washington makes two kinds of movies: Movies where Denzel gets to be a bad ass, and movies with a “message” where Denzel gets to be a bad a*s. He only makes the latter every once in a while these days to remind everyone that Denzel is still the best goddamn actor of his generation, because not everyone is aware of that. Those people are called, “People who have never seen a Denzel Washington movie.”

Inside Man is not only a perfect testament to Washington’s preternatural levels of skill and charisma, it’s also a film that dares to try meld the two types of films that Washington usually does together. Yes, it is unquestionably more of the badass type, but it mixes in just enough of the ‘message’ to give its populist bombast a healthy amount of dramatic heft. That message is twofold: Big cities like New York derive their strength from their cosmopolitan nature, and the banking giants that dominate our capitalist ecosystem have been raised up on foundations stained with blood.

As an American film, Inside Man is situated thematically between two earthquakes that struck the country: 9/11, and the financial crisis of 2007/8. As an incredibly proud NEW YORK movie, the film uses the city’s status as ground zero for both of those awful events to infuse the atmosphere with a palpable tension and feeling. It’s not an easy thing to do right. Usually, any hint of 9/11 as a theme in American cinema is enough for me to develop a strong case of side eye. More often than not, it seems that whenever that day is invoked, jingoism, racism, and empire apologia will surely follow. Similarly, any American film about police makes me approach with caution and a ready critical eye. There’s a reason why the term copaganda exists after all.

To me, Inside Man succeeds more than it fails when it comes to tackling these subjects. It does so chiefly by showing the vast majority of its police characters as variously racist, brutish, or trigger happy. Rather than trying to advance some asinine ‘bad apples’ theory, Inside Man has its two central cops be the rare ‘good apples’ of the force—at least from what we see.

The racism of the NYPD is tied into the feeling of a New York still reeling from 9/11 when the bank robbers release Vikram Walia (Waris Ahluwalia), a hostage with a package tied to him and who also happens to be a Sikh. The cops, already tense because the hostages are dressed the same as the robbers, go into full a full on rah-rah American jingoism mode as soon as they notice Walia’s heritage. ‘Oh sh*t, a fu**ing Arab!’ they bark (managing to be both wrong and racist at the same time), in a tone that almost hints at this being something they’ve been looking forward to. ‘Is this a bomb?!’ they repeatedly yell at Walia while they violently wrestle him to the ground, tearing off his turban in the process. Walia later gets a halfhearted non-apology from the commanding officer on the scene (Willem Dafoe), who attempts to brush off the racist behaviour of his subordinates by saying that Walia must have ‘not heard them right’ when he says that he heard them call him an Arab. Dafoe’s character later also casually uses the term ‘ragheads’. Again, rather than pretending that the racism of the NYPD is down to a few rogue elements within an otherwise virtuous force, Inside Man shows us that the rot extends all the way through the ranks.

By 2006, there had been rumblings of the quake that was to hit in 2007/8, with economists and academics around the world warning that America’s housing market and the reckless pursuit of short-term profit that underpinned it was coming to an imminent and catastrophic head. But though the crash was predictable, in popular consciousness the banks still mostly stood firm. Firm, but crooked. While the numbers on the charts kept crawling up and the politicians in thrall to the system tried their best to pretend the system was just, there was already a great and growing discontent in wider society with the rigged game that is modern capitalism. Inside Man taps into this feeling, and it advances a more than justified thesis: The titans of finance—those very same institutions we consider pillars and exemplars of our world—got where they are now by wading through the blood of innocents. In Inside Man’s case, it is Christopher Plummer’s Arthur Case—the founder of the major Wall Street bank under siege by Dalton Russell and his thieves—who is revealed as the ultimate villain: He built his empire by doing business with the Nazis and selling out Jewish people during the Holocaust. As Case says at one point: You may think this a heinous crime but he guarantees that half of the Fortune 500 could be accused of similar things.

Like I said: Inside Man is first and foremost a piece of popcorn entertainment, but I love the fact that it’s not afraid to infuse it with some weightier themes.

The film also has a tonne of tiny little touches and moments that I love.

There’s a moment when the bank robbers are confiscating all the hostages’ phones. They have collected the phones, but one man—the posh, white bank manager—refuses to hand any phone over, insisting—in spite of the threat of violence—that he left it at home. Russell gives him one last chance to confess if he’s just trying to be a hero. When the manager holds firm, Russell starts to rummage through all the other hostages’ phones, looking for the manager’s number in them to ring and find out the truth. This is all perfectly filmed and directed by Lee. The tension and danger is potent. And then a sequence of events happen that add up to give the viewer complete tonal whiplash. First Russell finds a phone with the manager’s name in it, rings the number…and the chorus to Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ blares out from the manager’s phone. He’s terrified, the assembled hostages now fear for his life, and Russell is definitely about to enact vengeance. The audience feels all these emotions. And yet, at the same time, it’s quite funny? The juxtaposition of this rigid WASPy besuited bank manager, and his apparent love for prime era Kanye West. The way that sampled Ray Charles melody cuts through the fraught atmosphere of the hostage situation, the look on the manager’s face. It’s great. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, Russell does something unexpected. Instead of punishing the manager, he walks away, into another room. There, his silhouette is visible through the translucent glass. The audience watches, confused. The hostages watch, confused and terrified. And Clive Owen puts on this ridiculous and inexplicable shadow theatre performance of thinking, waving his arms in front of his face while he paces, and clearly miming out loud to himself. It’s completely ridiculous and I love it! Then, just as suddenly, he returns to the room, grabs the manager, drags him into the room, and we see Russell beat him quite viciously and horribly in the same shadow theatre way. It’s a goddamn tonal roller coaster and for some reason, it works!

Inside Man has a very unique tone to it throughout, and it makes me love the movie all the more.

I love the fact Inside Man keeps the nature of the heist secret, from us as well as the police. We are left playing the guessing game almost as much as Frazier. We are one step ahead of Frazier, but one step behind Russell. I am massive fan of ‘penny drop’ moments in cinema. Things like the the ‘Look around, man, all the cops are into something. It’s Christmas, you could steal City Hall!’ interaction between the delinquent kid and John McClane in Die Hard With A Vengeance that makes John realise that not everything is as it seems with the excavation works near the Federal Reserve. Inside Man is a big fan of penny drop moments too. We watch the scales drop from before our eyes as the real nature of Russell’s plan is revealed, and we see multiple realisations dawn on Frazier as he tries to catch up to the thief. There’s a beautiful, very fun cascade of these realisations after all the hostages are let go and the thieves leave alongside them, dressed identically. As Frazier and the police storm the bank they find only fake weapons, no evidence of money having been stolen, and in fact no evidence of any crime at all. It’s played perfectly.

By this point we also know background behind Russell’s opening monologue. The sonofabit*h is hiding in the bank behind a fake wall they build during the heist! The fact that the mastermind of their 24-hour emergency, and Frazier’s nemesis, is hiding a few feet from the gormless cops stumbling from one room to another makes it all the more fun.

I love the fact that Inside Man is populated with very clearly drawn and well defined characters, and that that goes for even the relatively minor characters with minimal screen time.

There’s the older Jewish lady who simply refuses to strip down to her underwear after all the other hostages have complied with the gun-toting criminals’ order. Russell stalks over to her, revolver gleaming at the ready, and sticks it in her face, telling her again: Strip. She, literally trembling in fear, nevertheless refuses, and actually tells him: ‘Go ahead. Make my day.’ And it works! What a badass.

There’s the construction worker who helps crack the code of the Eastern European broadcast that Russell confuses the cops with. The police have played one of their classic tricks: Planting a bug on the food (pizza, of course, because, again: New York!) they sent in for the hostages. Little do they know, that Russell was expecting that, and so they set up a foreign language recording to play for the pleasure of the police listening in. Hilariously, the cops think it’s Russian being spoken at first, and in yet another reveal of their xenophobic character, get completely spooked and call them ‘savages’. The funniest part of it all, is that eventually we learn that it is not Russian—because they ask a Russian beat cop. So how do the police figure out what mystery language is being spoken on their tape? They broadcast the tape out into the crowd. Because it’s New York. Someone will know. And that’s all that needs to be said. I love that. As a celebration of the city’s cosmopolitan nature, it’s a little bit on the nose, but I love it. Just like I love the guy who pipes up and solves the problem for them in what is such a delightful scene:

‘Yo, my man!’ comes a voice from the back of the crowd of assembled heist onlookers. A tall construction worker gets brought forward and past the police tape and then into the police van. He tells them the language being spoken is Albanian. ‘Albanian?’ they say.

‘Yeah, Albanian. From Albania.’
‘Okay, what are they saying?’
‘I have no idea what they’re saying.’
‘You got no idea? I thought you said you spoke Albanian.’
‘I never said I spoke Albanian.’
‘You said you spoke Albanian’.
I never said I speak Albanian!

It turns out that the construction worker knows it’s Albanian because his ex-wife and her parents were Albanian. This is already really funny, but then there’s the cherry on the cake: The cops decide to try get someone in from the Albanian consulate to translate and they tell the construction worker to just hang out in the police van until they can get that done. To which the construction worker, defeated, taking off his hat: ‘Ah, man, not again!’ I completely lose it every time at this moment. It’s just such a perfect ending to a great exchange, and while obviously the ‘not again’ is likely referencing some other trouble with the police—which is already funny—the idea that this poor guy has to keep sitting in with the cops because he can’t stop identifying Albanian in public is my own personal head canon and it cracks me up every time.

And of course, no discussion of Inside Man can be complete without discussing a character that doesn’t actually appear in the credits:

Denzel Washington’s hat.

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Detective Joe Frazier loves. This. Hat. And I love how much he loves it. I love even more how the film acknowledges it. Washington spends the whole movie never straying too far from that hat. He puts it on lovingly, he plays with it, he makes sure to put it down carefully. Then, at the end of the film, Frazier goes to confront the Mayor and Jodie Foster’s ice cold political fixer, Madeleine White, with a bit of information that turns everything upside down and finally gives him a leg up against the scheming of corrupt institutions and individuals that have kept him on the back foot throughout most of the movie. The Mayor and White are dining in a ridiculously opulent-looking restaurant. Frazier, all done up in his tan suit and—of course—his hat, strides up the stairs of the building, and straight into the restaurant. The maitre d’ tries to stop him getting too far. As he does so, one of my favourite line readings of all time takes place:

‘Good afternoon, sir. Do you have a reservation?’
‘I’m looking for the Mayor.’
‘May I have your hat please?’
‘No you cannot. Get your own’.

Denzel Washington should have won an Oscar just for that line alone. The catharsis it represents, and the sheer jaunty, insolence with which Washington delivers it, is absolutely delicious, and is the perfect payoff for a fantastic movie.

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



Header Image Source: Universal Pictures