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Laughing on the Inside

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that doesn't know quite as much about the English education system as it thinks it does. This week I was hoping to share with you my thoughts on (the apparently hilarious) Basic Instinct 2, but scheduling problems meant that this hasn't worked out — hopefully next time. Instead, I went to see Spike Lee's Inside Man, what on paper looks like a rather generic thriller and an odd choice of project for this famously politicised film-maker. However, as in the plot of the movie, not all is as it seems.

On an average day in Manhattan, proceedings at a wealthy and respected bank are disrupted by the appearance of devious mastermind Dalton Russell (Clive Owen doing a reasonable American accent) who leads a crack team of people called Steve in an audacious raid on the institution, barricading themselves inside and taking the staff and customers hostage. The NYPD being really quite sharp, they fairly soon notice what's going on and send in detective and trained negotiator Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to try and sort it all out painlessly. However the situation is more complex than Frazier suspects, as the chairman of the bank (Christopher Plummer) has a very personal reason to worry about the crooks ransacking his vault, and sends in ruthless political operator Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to resolve things to his own satisfaction...

Well, the first thing to be said about Inside Man is that it is a tremendously slick and polished, thoroughly solid piece of entertainment. The plot is fairly complex but never obscure, the situation is genuinely involving, and it's very well performed by a quality cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Willem Defoe play two of the other cops backing Washington up). This isn't the most original scenario for a thriller - Russell Gewirtz's script acknowledges the debt it owes to Dog Day Afternoon, amongst other things - but the plotline concerning Foster's character gives it a new spin, and it's not afraid to lighten things up with moments of dry comedy either. Washington is charismatic and, as ever, believable as a man caught up in machinations he doesn't entirely understand at first, while Owen is very nearly as good, especially considering he's playing a character we learn almost nothing about and who spends most of the film masked. The script is playful and deceptive, only losing its pace and focus slightly near the end once the siege at the bank is over and the aftermath of the situation is playing itself out. There is of course a twist in the tale, but I think you would have to have seen virtually every episode of Mission: Impossible to figure out what it is.

In some ways this is a rather old-fashioned, seventies-style movie, and Terence Blanchard's muscular soundtrack seems to be acknowledging this. But in others this is a very contemporary film and one senses that this is why a fairly radical director like Spike Lee took the movie on. This isn't an overtly political film but the plot does fundamentally revolve about the exploitation of minority ethnic groups - to say much more would be to spoil the plot. The film seems to ask who is really worse, the bank robber or the corporate raider, and isn't afraid to load the dice in favour of its preferred answer, going so far as to make Owen's character seem rather more sympathetic than Plummer's. Lee can't resist throwing in a few incidental jabs about modern race relations either - there's a fairly long sequence where a Sikh who works at the bank gets mistaken for an Arab suicide bomber, roughed up by the police and has his turban confiscated, and another with a droll parody of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its glorification of the gangsta lifestyle, neither of which is strictly crucial to the plot. Lee directs confidently, with lots of long takes and tracking shots, although at least one of his grand flourishes ends up looking unintentionally funny - at one point a close-up on Washington, supposedly running flat out, looks instead like he's being wheeled along on a trolley - mainly because he very obviously is!

But this isn't a heavy or preachy film, and all this stuff is by no means crucial to enjoying what it has to offer. Inside Man is at heart a genre piece, but it's made with such wit and skill and energy that one almost doesn't notice this. Very enjoyable indeed - recommended.

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