Nearly 30 years have passed since Spike Lee’s first commercial film release, yet it’s still impossible to know whether his drive to create only distinctive Spike Lee Joints is artistic vision or the result of audience expectation and studio demand. But that signature style is what Lee is most known for, so in 2006 when the film world was still reeling, or at least gently stunned, at the idea of Lee directing a Hollywood heist flick, it was understood that no matter how basic the premise of Inside Man was, it would always reflect his trademark aesthetic.
Ultimately, though, Inside Man became an almost bullet-point list of what makes a Spike Lee movie a Spike Lee movie. There are almost no variations on that theme, with the exception of Lee’s ability to manipulate audience expectations. Instead of his usual overt, in-your-face technique, Lee opted for more symbolism and subtlety, and to great effect. He knows it is sometimes necessary to throw an audience off guard in order to open minds and change perspectives.
That’s why it’s no accident that Inside Man opens with a series of sculptures on New York streets and carvings on Wall Street buildings, mostly of herd animals — bulls, of course — but also a few faces, though even as ornamental sculptures, those faces come in groups and are never alone. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography in these opening scenes is gorgeous, celebratory of the beauty of New York, though it also provides direct commentary on Inside Man’s real theme: identity.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and his gang knock over a bank in Manhattan, taking about 40 people hostage in the process and demanding the usual buses and jets for their escape. The group consists of five people but most hostages later only recount four, and that’s because of the clever manipulation of identities the robbers employ. They dress in painter’s jumpsuits, face masks and sunglasses and put the hostages in almost identical outfits. By continually moving people around, blindfolding them and even posing as hostages themselves, they prevent anyone from being able to later identify them.
Enter the NYPD, lead by Captain Darius (an underused Willem Dafoe), with the hostage negotiations lead by Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington). As they work to get the hostages out and the bad guys arrested, they realize Russell is stalling them deliberately. Meanwhile, bank president and owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) has some deep secrets hidden in a safe deposit box, and he hires a professional fixer, Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), to get into the bank and retrieve those secrets before the robbers or the cops do.
No one in this film owns their own identity, and that is exactly how Lee wants it. The hostages are victims of both the criminals and the police, and the actual criminals pretend to be victims themselves, howling as loud and crying as hard as the real hostages do. The government, represented by the police department and Detectives Frazier and Mitchell, defines people by their appearance and nothing else. Almost everyone in the film is a faceless, uniformed member of a group, and if an individual is briefly plucked out of the herd, they are still identified by their religion, their breast size or for being an “asshole;” identity never gets any deeper than that.
Even an individual who stands out, like Detective Frazier, is defined by what group he belongs to. As a detective and hostage negotiator, we’re never quite sure if he’s with the police force or part of a separate entity. When questions about his unorthodox style start to form in the viewer’s mind, we wonder if he’s actually a member of the gang, or maybe even in with the corrupt rich folks trying to hide their dangerous secrets.
Framing Frazier’s motivations as reflections of where he belongs in society is an interesting concept, and Denzel Washington plays the charismatic, group-hopping Detective Frazier to near perfection. Yet the quirky detective is not as easy to categorize as he first seems. Personable and eccentric, Frazier is also prone to non-sequiturs about his girlfriend and possesses the uncanny ability to ask the exact right question of a suspect, seemingly without realizing its importance. It’s all very Columbo, but it becomes clear soon enough that while Frazier may bear a surface resemblance to Columbo, or is perhaps even deliberately affecting Columbo’s mannerisms to hide his true self, Detective Frazier is no Columbo.
Frazier’s uncanny questions turn out to be no more than coincidence, and he repeatedly misses important clues when he interviews hostages after the robbery. This all leads to the inevitable suspicion that he is in on the heist, of course, or maybe a part of the associated corruption. Unfortunately, this is where the script completely lets us down. Because no one else around Frazier, not even his partner Detective Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), sees the glaring clues or the questionable methods, it becomes all too easy to believe Frazier is simply mediocre at his job.
Uneven character development is unfortunately common in a Lee film. Inside Man features much of the director’s best filmmaking qualities, but it also highlights many of his worst. One of the most notable flaws in Spike Lee Joints is the tendency to present females as caricatures. All women in Inside Man are defined by their bodies, even the minor characters, and while this seems initially to reflect the theme of loss of identity, it doesn’t explain Frazier’s girlfriend Sylvia (Cassandra Freeman), who is nothing more than a hypersexual black woman cliché. The fixer Madeleine White is not only frequently framed so that male characters physically overwhelm her, but in one very memorable scene, she is called a “magnificent cunt.” The script, once again, fails to deliver: moments when a woman’s appearance is consciously shown as her only identifying quality are easy to discern, and this ironically serves to emphasize the unexamined Hollywood sexist cliches that no one in production bothered to notice.
And Inside Man is heavy on cliches, both deliberate and unintentional. This is a film that borrows plot points and minor actors from classic heist films. Its dialogue and characters and even wardrobe choices are all grabbed straight from the cultural consciousness. Most of these things fail as either homage or Tarantino-esque reconstruction and are included simply because that is how action films were done in 2006. The numerous callbacks are ostensibly to key the audience into certain cliches, but they play more like Lee’s not-so-subtle attempts to prove that he can do all those classics one better. And speaking of ego, Lee indulges it shamelessly with a what-if scenario included for no reason other than to show he could have done a full-blown, guns blazing action flick if he wanted to; he just didn’t want to.
Inside Man is not a bad film, but one doesn’t have to look far to see that it is, underneath the shiny and well-crafted surface, a cynical Hollywood flick. Lee is content to borrow from other sources and plunk it into the Spike Lee Joint template, and that’s entertaining enough but hardly revelatory. The film’s ultimate flaw is a bone-weary resignation that this has all been done before, and that the specific audience for this film wanted only to see a director step out of his usual genre and into a new one for a couple of hours.