Saturday, March 25, 2006

Inside Man


I never thought I would see the day that Spike Lee, of all people, would take NYC for granted.

I suppose we should thank him for actually shooting in the city instead of, as they did with the even worse "16 Blocks," shoot in Montreal and then insult us by calling it New York.

But that's about all I can give him credit for with "Inside Man." From there it's an empty flick from start to finish, bereft of any of the potent issues that drove his best films or any of the dramatic tension needed to sustain a good heist flick.

In case you've somehow missed the commercials, here's what setup there is: Clive Owen and co-conspirators holdup a crowded bank in downtown New York, taking all the customers and employees and customers hostage. Denzel Washington and his partner Chiwetel Ejiofor are assigned the task of bringing this to an end without any bloodshed.

A promising enough premise, I guess, but the first thing we see is Clive Owen talking into the camera to tell us how fiendishly clever his plan is. Without revealing what it is, I'll just tell you they're in the bank within 5 minutes. No planning, no scheming, nothing that I like to see in a great heist flick. If you want to see one, Netflix "The Great Train Robbery."

On top of this enters Jodie Foster to do, well, I'm still not sure what. It turns out that bank bigwig Christopher Plummer, a welcome sight even in fare as slight as this, has something he doesn't want anyone to find out about, and he hires her to keep it secret. And, it is a serious issue, the kind Spike used to enjoy exploring instead of, as he does here, just letting it hang there, an unexamined, seemingly tacked on plot point. Worse, the plot makes next to no sense at all.

What made it worse for me was that, throughout, there were signs of the old Spike I know and still love. The bank customers and beat cops look and talk like the kind of people you might actually meet in New York, and there is some choice humor in their encounters.

One other scene that struck me was when Owen takes a break from trying to be menacing to talk to his youngest captive, a youngblood of about 10 who already talks like he's 20. As the kid's talking tough, Owen takes a look at the game on his PSP, an ultraviolent street shoot-em-up. As our young friend explains that you get points for selling crack and jacking cars, we see, on the game screen, someone's head being blown off and the phrase "Take dat, nigga" written on top.

It's jarring and more than a little uncomfortable. It's also the kind of thought-provoking scene Spike used to deliver with regularity.

Maybe this was just the wrong week for me to see any Hollywood movie that's supposedly about cops, given what happened this week in the real world of Macon, Ga.

In an early-morning drug raid on a house a couple of miles from mine, a sheriff's deputy was fatally shot. In the aftermath, two young men, among five arrested, have been charged as the trigger men, and may now face the death penalty.

It's the kind of situation where nobody can possibly win, the kind where only a director like Spike Lee would even try to look for answers. Or at least he used to, before he lost his nerve and decided to sell us garbage like "Inside Man."

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