I just saw the new Spike Lee film "Inside Man." It's a caper movie with no real caper; and as a thriller it doesn't deliver very many thrills. Yet I enjoyed "Inside Man" more than any other film I've seen this year.
Why? Well, there hasn't been much competition. But also because of the pleasure of seeing what could have been a fairly ordinary genre movie get imbued with some real directorial personality. Spike's roots are in New York, to my knowledge all of his films use the city as a primary setting. "Inside Man" takes place mostly in a pretty small area of Manhattan real estate, but there is "New York energy" in abundance. (a trite expression I know)
The central narrative of a detective (Denzel Washington) trying to defuse a bank robbery/hostage crisis is broken up with flash forwards in which Washington's character and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) interview the hostages. It seems the detectives don't quite know the good guys from the bad, but I'll say no more on that. There's a mix of ages and ethnicities, and a bunch of great little performances from an ensemble of character actors.
Lee does make a couple of points about race. A middle-aged white bank employee's phone plays Kanye West as a ringtone, it's a light and funny way of showing the way hip-hop culture is everywhere. The one heavy-handed note is a brief animated scene - supposedly a video game - depicting black-on-black violence. It's irrelevant to the plot and Lee has covered the same ground in "Clockers."
One of the bank employees is a Sikh whose turban is removed by the police. As the detectives question him, he demands his turban and complains about petty racial slights (being taken for an Arab). Washington says "I bet you can get a cab though, right?"
I'm probably making a little much out of all this; the mystery plot which takes up up most of the story has some serious holes in logic and motivation. But it's a treat to watch a top director - who's worst films are still worth seeing - working so confidently in a new tone. A glance at Spike's credits reveals only a TV pilot on the horizon. I'm hoping the success of "Inside Man" will re-open some doors for Spike.
(image - www.jamiehughesphotography.com)