Do the Right - Wing Thing

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Inside Man

Directed by Spike Lee

When critics praise Spike Lee's bank heist picture Inside Man, are they praising the movie, or the fact that Lee finally directed something that looks like standard-issue Hollywood product? Either way, the key word is "looks." Written by first-timer Russell Gerwitz, and almost certainly tinkered with by the improv-loving Lee, this is a curious film, a popcorn movie with a bitter aftertaste.

The plot pits robber Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) and a team of henchfolk dressed in hooded painter's outfits and face masks against promotion-hungry detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and mysterious Madeline White (Jodie Foster), a shady fixer who's hired by the bank chain's founder and owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), to learn Russell's motives and prevent certain devastating secrets from being revealed.

In a touch that links this film to The Killing, Reservoir Dogs and other time-shifting pulp thrillers, the bank heist narrative is interwoven with flash-forwards (shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique in degraded, blown-out sepia) to scenes where cops interview hostages after the fact.

Russell fancies himself the planner of a perfect heist. He's not a real crook, but the sort of suave, sexy mastermind who only exists in Hollywood caper flicks.

His philosophical detachment, dry wit and seemingly omniscient ability to predict the cops' actions make him seem like the most likeable James Bond-type baddie ever. (He even gets to take part in Spike Lee agitprop-disguised-as-a-humanizing-moment, a scene where Russell checks out a young boy's gory gangsta videogame and is disturbed by it.)

Oddly, though, despite the genre setup, movie star leads and complex set pieces (including some S.W.A.T. team action modeled on The Silence of the Lambs), this isn't a by-the-numbers film.

Gerwitz and Lee intertwine plot twists (many of them patently ludicrous) with character development that feeds back into the film's two main themes: the tendency of a fragmented, alienated community to unite around trauma, and the conflict between doing the right thing (so to speak) and getting paid.

The neatly-planted bit of info about Frazier being investigated for taking $140,000 in seized gambling money, for instance, makes you wonder if he's the inside man of the title; White and Russell's comfort level makes you wonder if she's connected and, of course, it's impossible to look at Mr. Case and wonder if he's really as hapless and ignorant as he seems.

Lee's human quilt of a cast includes James Ransome of The Wire and Ken Leung, star of Lee's Sucker-Free City, as bank hostages, and Chiwete Ejiofor as Frazier's tough, funny partner. Bill Mitchell proves his social panoramist's inclination is as strong as ever. This movie is as likely as Jungle Fever and Summer of Sam to put the plot on hold and let characters shoot the breeze, often in language that reveals their prejudices even as they try to conceal them. (Keepers include a scene where Frazier and Mitchell interview a Sikh who's furious about always being mistaken for a terrorist, and a post-heist interview in which Mitchell can't stop himself from checking out a busty hostage's cleavage.)

Some of Lee's social tension seems shoehorned in, but the best of it plays like an earthbound answer to Crash's direct-from-1971 racist caterwaulingan accurate rendition of modern urban America's infinite gradations of prejudice, and a true portrait of how such impulses get submerged and redirected so people can get ahead.

I also appreciated Lee's visual intelligence: The way Inside Man starts out by isolating its supporting characters with discrete, zoomed-in close-ups (most of them are talking on cell phones or listening to iPods), and then, as the movie goes on, unites everyone by moving from person to person in lengthy, uncut, Steadicam shots. It's a visual analog for how trauma forces people out of their private technological bubble and forces them to connect with what Deadwood creator David Milch calls the larger human organism.

There are times when you feel as though Lee is straining to superimpose his sociological dramatist's sensibility on what amounts to gussied-up Hollywood product. Lee's ambivalence toward this project is reflected in the film's motif of heroism and decency overcome by (or at least tainted by) self-interest; every character, including the cops, is ultimately just looking to get paid. Inside Man aims to sell out without selling outan impossible task, but you'd be surprised how close Lee gets to accomplishing it.

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