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Here I sit within a bank,
With hostages at my disposal.
The cops know my demands are frank
And no suggestion or proposal.

While they scramble, stupefied,
And try to gain the upper hand,
I wait with patience here inside,
Assured in every twist I’ve planned.
__________________

MPAA rating: R

I didn’t know much about Inside Man going in, and that proved to be an advantage to take in the twists of this heist thriller as they came. Directed by Spike Lee, Inside Man begins with an enigmatic monologue from Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) about pulling off the perfect bank robbery. Within minutes, we see the heist begun by four masked robbers, who blind the surveillance cameras and take everyone in the bank hostage. The police soon react, and Detective Frazier (Denzel Washington) is sent in to assess and resolve the tense situation.

As with most heist films, the actual mechanics of the theft are the most intriguing to watch. Once the robbers seal off the building, it becomes clear that they’re not interested in the cash in the vault. They force the hostages to also dress up in masks and start drilling in a store room. While it’s unclear what their goals and motivations are, they’ve obviously thought through every contingency. The chess-like moves between gruff Frazier and mysterious Dalton are cleverly riveting, and the tension is visceral even without any shoot-em-up action. Intercut with the main story are police interviews with the hostages, who are all suspects in this puzzling caper.

The film would have done well to keep its focus on the heist, for it stumbles on the outside. Jodie Foster adds star power as a smug fixer sent in by the bank’s owner (Christopher Plummer), but she feels out of her depth in this kind of volatile situation. Her scenes mainly consist of self-confident threats; she probably does have the political connections to carry them out, but her toughness rings hollow in the face of an unpredictable criminal. Likewise, even though the climactic twist is ingenious, the ultimate outcome feels half-baked and unsatisfying. Not every question is answered, and we’re ultimately urged to sympathize with an enigma because someone else is worse. In the end, the film didn’t convince me that what should have happened did or would.

Inside Man is well-executed where it counts the most: the heist itself. The acting is serviceable, but the strategy of the “perfect bank robbery” is the main strength of the film, which also showcases the racial tension and ethnic diversity in New York (Albanian, Sikh, etc.). Heavy on the unnecessary language and occasional violence, it’s a movie left in “just good” territory, let down by only half-fulfilled promise.

Best line: (Russell) “But inevitably, the further you run from your sins, the more exhausted you are when they catch up to you. And they do.”

 

Rank: Honorable Mention

 

© 2016 S. G. Liput
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