278 – The Inside Man

Denzel Washington plays Frazier, an opportunistic New York detective trying to redeem his career who lucks into being the man in charge of defusing a possible hostage situation at a downtown bank.

Only things aren’t what they seem. For one thing, the robbers are very deliberate, taking their time to accomplish their task. For another, powerbroker/go-to gal Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) appears on the scene at the behest of the bank’s president (Christopher Plummer) to retrieve something that the bank president keeps in a safe-deposit box. Sounds like someone has something to hide, doesn’t it? Well, Frazier smells a rat, but nothing he tries seems to work. He at first is content to sit back and let the chief bad guy (Clive Owen) indicate his terms and conditions, maybe get him to release a hostage or two. But there are too many unknown variables at play. No one knows how many gunmen there are, or how many hostages. Or, most importantly, how the baddies plan to escape, since they’re surrounded by hundreds of law-enforcement people, vehicles, and guns.

So this turns into a cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Owen. From the audience’s perspective, we can see that the robbers have dressed the captives just as they themselves are (i.e., gray pullover, sunglasses, and white mask), and sometimes they release one – just enough to keep Washington’s Frazier off balance. He can’t figure out what they’re up to, but he also can’t storm the bank and take them by force without risking the lives of an unknown number of hostages.

The story is told in overlapping time frames: the standoff and the aftermath. This is instructive to the audience, as we can ascertain how the standoff ends. Ah, but the strength of the plot lies in the details. As the title bluntly puts it, someone – or some people – who were in the bank when it was commandeered were in on the heist. But who? We see Frazier and his partner interview the hostages, trying to ferret out the robbers, and from what they say we can piece together the rest of the story.

Spike Lee does a wonderful job of maintaining the tension of the situation without really forwarding the plot, but there are some small problems with the script. Washington’s character seems a little too glib; he’s not quite snarky, just kind of flippant at times, and it doesn’t feel right with the scene. I’m not sure if this is a product of Washington’s acting or Lee’s directing, but the two usually mesh much more seamlessly.

All in all, The Inside Man is is a taut whodunnit, reminiscent of movies like Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, films that highlighted the congealed multinational humanity that is New York, that should keep you guessing until the end, although it does raise a few questions more than it answers.

***

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