Catch Me If You Can

By-the-numbers heist flick Spiked with ethnic vaudeville

Possibly the least personal Spike Lee joint in the entire history of cinema, the bank-heist-hostage -policier-cryptoterrorist thriller Inside Man nevertheless manages to be a most enjoyable sampling of the director's treasured "my way" eccentricities.

This big-budget studio release, set mainly in and around a Wall Street–area financial institution, has been fashioned from a cunning script that, given its Holocaust subtext, scenarist Russell Gewirtz might have hopefully pitched Steven Spielberg. Denzel Washington stars as a cocky police detective matching wits with Clive Owen, the smooth mastermind who takes the bank. Jodie Foster (hilariously referred to throughout as "Miss White") plays a high-powered fixer hired by super-capitalist swine Christopher Plummer to finesse a dicey situation; Willem Dafoe is on hand to bark out a few orders. The stars are not exactly slumming here, but they're frequently upstaged by the garrulously polyglot mob of unruly New Yorkers trapped in the bank or patrolling its perimeter.

The svelte, twisty plotting, complete with concentration camp references and Nazi-era villainy, is almost certainly Gewirtz, but the ethnic vaudeville is pure Spike. "You get the same treatment as everybody else, rabbi," one of the bank robbers gratuitously snarls during the grand takeover. "Face down on the floor!" Or, rather, in-your-face all the time: Inside Man resounds with stray assertions of irate identity like "100 percent Albanian! 100 percent Albanian!" and "What the fuck—give me my turban!" The latter demand, delivered by a Sikh bank employee to the cops who are questioning him, readily segues into a diatribe against post–9-11 profiling, the onrushing complaint coming to an abrupt bada-boom when Washington's partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dryly observes, "I bet you can get a cab, though."

Robbin' hoods: Owen and co.
photo: David Lee/Universal Studios
Robbin' hoods: Owen and co.

Details

Inside Man
Directed by Spike Lee
Universal, opens March 24

Inside Man certainly functions as a genre film, but the backbeat of inane banter and schoolyard trash-talking serves to promote an infectious sense of levity. Adding to the pervasive wackiness, Lee pours on the florid mise-en-scéne; he humanizes the bare scaffolding of the Gewirtz scenario by subjecting the action to an assortment of space-mauling, time-wasting pans, as well as his trademark static character background glide. The filmmaker is sufficiently relaxed to interpolate the occasional editorial (in this case, against racist video games) and forcefully plug his pet '70s movies. "You saw Dog Day Afternoon," Washington triumphantly taunts Owen. "I know you're stalling."

Speaking of stalling: Inside Man's denouement is somewhat pointlessly distended. Spike Lee couldn't cut a movie down to two hours if his life and the fate of Universal Studios depended on it. Still, this enjoyable exercise in popcorn pyrotechnics demonstrates that Lee can be relied on to attack the clichés set before him with gusto. I wouldn't say that he exactly robbed the bank, but in this joint at least, he's his own inside man.

 
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