ARTS

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March 31, 2006

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen light up the latest Spike Lee joint

What could be more conventional than the bank heist film? You have cops, robbers, and a twist. Nevertheless, each year, somebody takes a shot at it. In 2006, that ambitious director is Spike Lee. Unbelievably, Inside Man manages to avoid the clichés that pepper any heist film while simultaneously creating a product of suspense, humor, and intelligence.

Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Plummer headline the marquee. Chiwetel Eljiofor (previously seen in Melinda and Melinda, arguably the worst Woody Allen film of all time) rounds out the cast. But what makes the film intriguing is not merely the acting but Lee’s directorial approach. Vast sweeping shots and remarkable composition make this film more than just your ordinary crime drama.

Washington’s performance is on par with his long and solid history. His Detective Keith Frazier is a far cry from Detective Alonzo Harris of Training Day. But, like Harris, Frazier is a character of real depth and complexity. Washington’s brilliance lies in his ability to deliver lines of severity and levity with equal power.

Clive Owen is the perfect bank robber. His minimalist performance captures the mystery of the character Dalton Russell. Owen’s Russell cannot be fazed, and this aspect of his personality shines through the screen.

Jodie Foster, as she often does, walks through the script. She does not possess the charisma of Washington, and her strange aloofness makes it difficult for the audience to relate to her character. Foster is often so cerebral that she limits her character’s development, and she fails to lend anything extra to the narrative. Her character is important, but the acting intangibles of Denzel Washington are lost on her. However, the onscreen chemistry between Washington and Owen fuels the necessary dynamics of the film and overshadows most of Foster’s qualities.

Lee wisely chose a highly original and intelligent screenplay. Russell Gewirtz’s script demonstrates that humor should play a prominent role in any substantive film. Such humor is executed perfectly by both Owen and Washington. Where the film goes astray is in trying to do too much toward the end. Very early on we discover the Nazi past of bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer). While this may be interesting on its own, the script attempts to tie too much together at the end. For the sake of discretion on my part, I will simply say that the film could have ended 20 minutes sooner.

Despite such a lag, the first three-fourths of the film are wonderful. Lee is a master and composes a scene as well as any of his contemporaries. It is not often that a film with such blockbuster potential is taken on by an auteur of Lee’s class. Lee has made his name in the world of cinema with his visionary outlook on modern society. While Inside Man does not ask the questions on the level of Do the Right Thing, it does give credence to the idea of mainstream cinema as art. The Spike Lees of the world are the ones who can save popular cinema from the cinematic drivel of Michael Bay and Chris Columbus.

While not the typical Spike Lee film, Inside Man is far from the ordinary Hollywood film. Each time we inhale a Spike Lee joint, the world appears both different and beautiful. We can’t forget Spike Lee, because luckily his joints don’t affect our short-term memory.