It's strange that "Inside Man" is one of Spike Lee's best films because it sure hasn't been touted as a Spike Lee Joint, as the director's films typically are in previews. But not this time.
Usually, a Spike Lee film is pushed as a racially divisive film, but not this time. Usually Lee's name is plastered all over the film, but not this time.
This time, Lee took a back seat to the actors and story, and it paid off.
"Inside Man" picks up with the head bank robber, Dalton Russel (Clive Owen), in a cell, narrating to the audience that he has just pulled off one of the greatest heists of all time. The film then takes us through the heist with all its intricacies and plot twists. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is brought in as the hostage negotiator but spends most of his time being played by Russel. The big question is, as the film unfolds, what is the point of the crime?
There is something important in the bank and while one can make a guess at what it is pretty early in the film, "Inside Man" still keeps you on the edge.
Jodie Foster, in one of her more underwhelming roles, is Madeline White, brought in to protect the big secret at whatever cost from the bank robbers. Foster seems to be reading through her lines throughout the film and doesn't really connect with any of the other actors, which is a letdown because Owen and Washington work so well together. Their performances shine with the depth of their skill. Both actors emit a screen presence that is undeniably classic and cool.
Washington's Frazier is at both times collected and in a constant panic. He's the classic good cop, oppressed by the dirty ones but kept real by Washington's performance. Owen's Russell is the robber with a heart of gold from a hundred other films, exemplified — as always — by a conversation with a child. But the actor owns the role and by the end of the film has a little more depth than at first glance.
What is especially refreshing about "Inside Man" is that while race issues do play a part, the theme isn't as oppressive as other Spike Lee films. Instead of feeling like you should be learning the film's lessons and searching for deeper meaning, you become entranced in the characters and story. When racial issues do pop up — and they run the gamut from black to Russian characters — they are an integral part of the world, an off-handed comment or a simple discussion. One second you're enjoying a heist movie and the next you're asking yourself why a beat officer with the NYPD doesn't see the problem with using the N-word while talking to Frazier.
It seems that when Lee stops trying to get his points across, he does it all the better.