Inside Man: a Spike Lee joint worth smoking
The film was billed by some critics as Lee's "sellout" film, since he seemingly strayed from his usual formula to direct a high budget, star-powered and (these days) typical Hollywood heist drama. At first glance, the high profile thriller seems completely opposite to his other works, which include socially relevant films such as, Do The Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X and Jesus Children of America.
However, it is that exact assumption that is the genius of Inside Man. Lee takes a typical genre and infuses it with sharp twists, sarcastic dialogue and a few poignant and racially-charged "Spike jabs". In the end, you know you've just watched something only Lee could put together.
Fittingly, the movie begins with the master thief Russell telling us to "pay strict attention." And pay attention you must, because the film does not flow the way a usual heist film flows. It begins typically, with detectives Frazier and Mitchell investigating a bank robbery/hostage situation in Manhattan, and the usual intense music-and-action sequences follow, as we see Russell and his henchmen, dressed as everyday painters, take over the bank.
However, scattered throughout the film, non-chronologically, are intense (and often funny) interviews with the hostages by Frazier and Mitchell. So the main question in the film becomes not what happens to the hostages (we know they are okay), not what happens to the detectives (we know they are okay too), but where the hell exactly is director Lee taking us? The answer is as enjoyable as watching this enthralling, riddle-of-a-movie was.
What's most surprising about Inside Man is how funny it is. The mood constantly changed in the theatre, from feeling intense and sombre to the whole theatre erupting in laughter. It never once takes itself too seriously, with Lee making his points through laughter but never shying away from the controversial stances that have made him famous.
He makes it politically, racially and socially relevant. He includes aspects such as the racism Muslims in America now face post-9-11, when one of the hostages is attacked by the police. The increasing violence young children see in the media, when a young hostage isn't afraid of the criminals because, like 50 Cent, they were just "getting rich or dyin' trying," is another issue he addresses. He even takes a jab at heist movies themselves, when Russell demands that the detectives answer a riddle or he will kill a hostage and Frazier keeps hanging up and calling back to change his mind about the answer.
Not surprisingly, Washington and Foster - both Oscar winners - give compelling performances in a film that either could do with their eyes wide shut. And Lee delivers another joint that is definitely worth smoking.