I’m normally mixed about watching Spike Lee films. I often very happily go in to see them (well, I can’t say I’ve ever seen one in a theatre, so “going in” is technically not accurate, but you get the idea), but am wary of Spike’s attitude, of which I am not a fan. I’ve ranted numerous times about the feelings I have about Spike Lee as a person, but it’s worth noting that all of his films that I’ve seen have been excellent as films, so long as I keep Spike away from it in any commentator capacity.* The presence of actors I have a more comfortable feeling about is certainly helpful (Turturro, for instance), and this one has Denzel Washington, Willem DaFoe, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. I’d also understood it to be a more “populist” film, and thus less likely to include the little pieces of the Spike attitude that annoy me (such as his decision to try and get an injunction against SpikeTV for trading on his name).
Detectives Keith Frazier (Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are two New York City policeman who are out of favour for big cases, but have been asking for a change in this. A group of people dressed as painters who appear in a bank only to lock it down and take everyone in it hostage gives them their opportunity, and they are sent in to take control of the situation. In control of the tactical team stationed at the crime scene is Captain John Darius (DaFoe), who has a brief clash with Frazier, who is unfamiliar to him. The painters, who all call each other a variation of “Steve,” are led by Dalton Russell (Owen), who introduces the film. Russell is ultra-confident and has no doubts about his control of the situation, not even becoming bemused at the thought of playing with the cops who are trying to stop him. They prevent outside phone calls or any other attempts at gaining outside help by confiscating all cell phones and keys, then dress all of the hostages just like themselves. Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), who founded and owns the bank is upset to find out which bank is being robbed and immediately calls in under-the-radar cleaner Madeleine White (Foster) to try to negotiate outside the police force in order to keep something safe which he refuses to describe. When the bank is finally cleared, Frazier and Mitchell are left lost as to what crime was intended in the painters’ entry, as no clear motivation appears. Told to drop it, Frazier cannot deny his instincts and pursues it to its end.
The first question I had as I started to watch the film was whether this film was perfectly populist and un-Spike, or if it was just a more populist but still-Spike film. The Russell Gerwitz script is not in line with the race-obsessed tendencies of Spike, but doesn’t shy away from that important issue (though it is not, as Spike often seems to believe, the only important issue), especially in conversations between officers and in the interrogations of the hostages and painters from the bank (who are indiscernible for the cops), which even gets into the old “post 9/11” mentalities. It’s always refreshing to me to see Spike get into bias against other races or groupings, as it brings a sigh of relief that Spike does recognize other people are and have been oppressed or judged unfairly. The scenes with Waris Ahluwalia as Vikram Walia are the most intelligent of these, addressing simplistic bias and judgment, but showing that Do the Right Thing spark of recognizing the way that people also treat prejudices with tongue-in-cheek sometimes, or occasionally even both those having them and those suffering them smirk at mutually seeing a truth in them.
The focus, though, is on the events and the plotting and planning of Dalton Russell. Viewers will likely spend most of the movie attempting to determine who is the titular inside man–is there a cop working with the robbers? A cop in the bank? A robber in the cops? Or maybe it’s all a load of bollocks and some jackass producer thought that would be a “neat title,” and it has no relevance whatsoever? There are hints and paths that can lead a conscientious viewer to many conclusions prior to the film’s own conclusion, but it takes a full viewing to be sure of how to interpret the title (and that interpretation may be that cynical last one, I shan’t clarify). Puzzling out Russell’s seemingly inexplicable confidence, even in the face of those cultural references that are thrown out (Dog Day Afternoon, especially). Frazier is smart enough to be aware of some telling moments in Russell’s actions, but still can’t quite get the last piece to understand why Russell is doing it at all–any more than most viewers can. The final explanation of it is a surprise, but not an O. Henry twist (or even a telegraphed twist in the fashion of certain egotistical directors of the modern age), it’s simple a re-purposing of the entire film, but fluidly and naturally. It’s not perfectly satisfying or fulfilling, but by no means is it a letdown either.
The actors are all in professional form, with Owen giving his usual flat vocal (all I can figure is he’s concentrating on eliminating his accent) performance that somehow works anyway behind his strong physical presence. He makes for an interesting actor in this capacity, managing to vary his roles despite all that, though I’m not sure I’ve caught exactly how he does it. He seems very close to his role as Dwight, but has not got the menace of it, though a similar level of confidence. Denzel’s role is the kind he often has as a cop (I should say I have not seen Training Day yet), a sort of smart smart-ass, aware of his surroundings and devoted to his job, but with a peculiar edge that keeps him separate from most of the people around him. It’s mostly their show though, the two of them, with Russell playing with Frazier, but Frazier still trying to figure out what game they’re even playing. While there are strong performances from the supporting cast, they are mostly just there as support, and no one jumps out particularly.
In the end, though, the film is much like its own ending–a bit of a surprise, but nothing earthshaking nor disappointing at the same time.
*His comments on the Italian anti-Partisans, the responses he’s had in classroom discussions about Do the Right Thing, his bizarre hypocrisies…Yes, there are clear issues here that I have. No, it is not because he is black. It is all about his ego.