New York is everywhere in Spike Lee’s sharp, new, genre-bending movie. Not just in the sweeping-through-the-streets or the creeping-along-the-sidewalks shots, but also inside the Manhattan bank where the film is mostly set, inside the minds of the cops trying to solve the case, and inside the exit interviews they conduct, in tight, hot-white-lit shots. New York is outside and inside in Inside Man, but mostly, it’s the incisive focus, impetus, and consequence.
Ostensibly a heist movie of the Die Hard sort, with colorfully ingenious villains who reveal surprising motives, Lee’s film (scripted by first-timer Russell Gewirtz) works within and without conventions, juggling a number of balls both familiar and eccentric. The detectives on the case — hostage negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and his partner Mitch (Chiwetel Ejoifor) — appear first at the station, oblivious to the robbery that you already know is in serious progress. You’ve seen the foursome in painters’ uniforms and masks enter the bank — located, the camera notes from an ominous low angle, at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway — disable the surveillance cameras, and take all the customers, workers, and security guards hostage.
When the scene cuts to Keith, he’s on the phone with his stunningly beautiful cop girlfriend, promising her an evening with “Big Willy and the twins.” Not precisely the role Washington usually plays, but Keith is clearly a man of his environment, seated across two desks from Mitch and crabbing about an Internal Affairs investigation into a missing $140,000. And then comes the call. Mitch and Keith light up when they realize they’ve got a chance to prove themselves, to get out from under the clamor at HQ. The captain’s other, favored team is somewhere else, and so, as Mitch exclaims, they’re off to “the show.”
The crime scene is already taped off, a mini-city populated by shooters and uniforms, hulking vans and vocal gawkers. But even as the outside scene recalls Dog Day Afternoon (which Keith cites by name); inside, the machinery is grinding along: the robbers dress the hostages like themselves, move them from room to room so they can’t get to know one another, and dig up a wall in the storage room. While you and the cops wonder what they’re up to, Keith has to make nice with turf-protecting Emergency Services Unit Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe), still mad at him for some case they worked years ago, but also anxious to get this one off quickly and successfully.
Keith’s got bridges half-burned wherever he turns, which makes him intriguing, if cryptic. Among the bridge’s he’s going to be burning during this adventure is a relationship with bank board chairman Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who shows up partway through the calamity to offer “support,” whatever he can do. The robbers have asked for a jet, which the cops recognize as a ploy (no one ever gets a jet, not since Munich, and everyone’s seen the movies that make this point), but which Arthur agrees to right away. The cops, huddled in the corner of their commander-trailer, exchange smirky looks and send him off, understanding he’s powerful and rich beyond anyone’s dreams, but has no clue how to how to talk with people or grocery shop.
And so Case sends a minion, a very well-dressed, perfectly coiffed, excruciatingly intelligent fixer, Madeline White (Jodie Foster), introduced as she’s arranging for Bin Laden’s nephew to purchase a condo (what’s more, she puts him off, politely, as soon as she gets the call from Case, whom she’s never met — that’s clout). “Miss White,” as she’s called repeatedly, gets exactly what she wants when she wants it, at least for a minute: she bribes Keith effectively, she plays Case, she knows how to reach the chief robber in charge, Dalton Russell (Clive Owen). And yet, she can’t quite solve this puzzle, which involves a special personal safe deposit box inside the bank (though the answer to this puzzle is Inside Man‘s least effective move, by far).
Miss White’s presence highlights a couple of ideas that drive the film. One, the folks with money do pull the strings, but they don’t know (or want to know) the details of the wreckage they leave behind. This would be the purview of Keith, as well Dalton, who has his own sort of insight into how the system works. Matching wits with the cops, he admires Keith’s pluck and ingenuity, but presumes he’s smarter, as all villains must. He spends some time with a couple of the hostages (mostly to beat on them and impress them with his virtuosity: “Anyone else here smarter than me?”), in particular, a small boy who plays a handheld video game, “Kill Dat Nigga” (the visual and plot basics recall the game in Clockers). Clearly, the violence exhibited by the robbers has nothing on what kids see and imagine every day in the city. Dalton voices his concern: “I’ve got to talk to your father.”
In between the figuring and plotting, the film flash-forwards to exit interviews with the hostages, Mitch and Keith cracking jokes, pressing them to confess their collaboration, jumping at or leaning into them to solicit responses. This array — anxious, audacious, arrogant — is clearly made up for “New York” embodiments, persevering, traumatized, post-9/11. Appearing in tight shots, the grainy hi-def digital exacerbating their complexities, the interviewees reveal too-shiny surfaces and their pocked faces.
If this interview pressurizing also recalls Clockers (where one suspect appears in Harvey Keitel’s glasses), Inside Man makes smart use of Lee’s other signature techniques (the street overview, the bystanders with attitudes, the moving sidewalk, deployed brilliantly here). Tense, showy, and shrewd, the movie is, like everyone’s been saying, Lee’s most generic (i.e., “accessible”), but that’s not what makes it brainy or galvanizing. Indeed, its cleverest moments involve odd and telling details: the credits sequence use of “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” the white-guy who recognizes but cannot translate Albanian language, and perhaps most energetically, the Sikh who resents being profiled as “Arab.”
Thinking he’s one of the robbers, the cops tackle him, take his turban, then refuse to return it to him. When Keith and Mitch pull him into the diner they’re using for a headquarters and question him, he finally has enough. Tired of being profiled at airports and eyed on the street, the young Sikh wonders, “What happened to my fucking civil rights?” Keith smiles, a little. “Bet you can get a cab though.” Competing traumas, leveling oppressions, comparable resiliences. It’s definitely New York.