Denzel and Spike are at it again, but this time there's less fun to go around.
With "Inside Man," Spike Lee abandons the unorthodox cinematography exemplified in previous films like "Malcolm X" and "Do the Right Thing," and delivers a mainstream effort that does not offer anything particularly unique.
And who could blame him? In recent years, Lee's films have performed poorly at the box office, and the well of critical acclaim has dried up and been replaced by loud criticism.
The plot of "Inside Man" is simple: There's been a bank robbery, perpetrated by Clive Owen, who is holding hostages. Denzel Washington mediates the long negotiation. Along the way, Jodie Foster enters to protect private interests, which complicates the negotiation.
Foster is an acclaimed actress who has coasted on her success in the late '80s and early '90s in films like "The Silence of the Lambs." But in recent years Foster has barely worked, and probably should have continued her hiatus if this is the kind of work she's planning on producing. The problem is partially due to the lack of dimensionality of her role, but she is a non-presence in "Inside Man"?suave when she should have been conniving, quiet when projection of inner power was needed.
Washington, in a variation of the role that won him an Oscar for "Training Day," represents a bright spot in the cast. He and Lee have collaborated numerous times, and are in sync with each other's style. He commands a sense of aggressive questioning, desiring to deduce the motivation behind a most perplexing bank hold-up. And Owen turns in solid (if a bit uninspired) work here as well.
This may be sub-par relative to what Lee is capable of, but it is not devoid of his trademarks as a director, nor little moments of genre subversion that glow amid the banality of the film's premise.
But Lee is too savvy of a filmmaker to leave it at that. One of the hostages is freed, and then refuses to speak until they give him back his turban. Washington counters by remarking that at least he can hail a cab. With this exchange, Lee shows that even a diverse city like New York is not devoid of prejudice.
Lee constantly refers to the "circus" that police and media turn events into. Once the robbery has been announced, cop cars, fire trucks and ambulances screech onto the scene from every angle, fences are erected, and orange tape is wrapped around every post. When another of the hostages is let free due to respiratory difficulty, he wheezes "Am I going to be on TV?" Here, the spectacle becomes the substance, and modern society is so concerned with the spectacle that the main point can easily be missed.
The main point is that the robbery ends with no traces, no one hurt, no suspects found. Everything just disappeared, almost as if it never happened, and the spectacle is what created it in the first place.
But these unconvincing plot qualities are actually the point for Lee. Although there is much evidence to the contrary, people are still very willing to take part in the charade, call it terrorism, when it's a simple heist. The popularity of this message at the box office, a much softer post-9/11 terrorism condemnation than found in his superior film "25th Hour," shows how audiences are much more interested in modest genre subversion rather than true originality. Let's hope Lee doesn't learn the lesson of this film too well.