Sunday, 23 April 2006

Inside Man (2006), dir. Spike Lee

Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, who explains to us in the opening shot that he has planned the perfect bank robbery. The film then proceeds to show the heist in progress, and the efforts of Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) to get the hostages being held in the bank out alive and getting the case wrapped up. When the four robbers seal off the bank and begin the robbery they make everyone take off their clothing and get into dark jumpsuits, white masks, and blindfolds; they are dressed just like the robbers. From here on it is very difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and that is a key theme in the film. Russell isn't an evil criminal mastermind, he's got a point to make, and it isn't about holding hostages or hurting them, or about robbing millions of dollars from the bank. There is a funny scene where a little black kid is playing with a Sony PSP and explains to Dalton the object of the game (kill people, put grenades in their mouths, sell crack to them, rape people, the usual thing an 8-year-old should be playing, in sum). Dalton shakes his head and says he'll have to talk to his father about this game. He's disgusted with the violence. Along comes the super powerdressed Madeline White (Jodie Foster, rather gingerly sporting an Hermès Birkin bag), who has been hired by the bank's owner, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) to make sure something in a safe deposit box never sees the light of day. It becomes clear that what's in the box interests Dalton too, and he's not willing to part with it just yet. In a bank full of money, the most important thing is an envelope documenting the origin of Case's money, Nazi loot. Can they manage to escape? And do we care?

I think that's my main gripe with the film. We don't care enough about the heist because the motivation is never properly developed. It is undoubtedly worthy, but many questions remain unanswered, and the main one is 'Why does Dalton do it?'. Lee is making us work for it in the film, but in a way we do need certain assurances that are not forthcoming. The film left me oddly dissatisfied. The film is well made, assuredly directed, and the acting is all very solid. There are plenty of nice parallel scenes set up in the film: Frazier can't afford a diamond ring for his girlfriend, the only real piece of evidence left at the scene is a Cartier diamond ring. And with a Spike Lee film you expect some angry political angle. It is there but you have to dig a little for it. It is a very post-9/11 film in this sense. One of the bank clerks who is released is being told to kneel (the cops think he's booby trapped) and when he takes his mask off one of the police officers says 'Oh shit he's a fuckin Arab', meaning 'of course he's wired up to explode'. The man is a Sikh. But the friend of the Nazis Arthur Case is paralleled rather nicely with the shady Birkin-toting Madeline, who blackmails Case to go referee on a purchase deal of property on Fifth Avenue by the nephew of Osama Bin Ladin. The implication is clear: Al-Qaeda are the Nazis of today, and the people we describe as war criminals are the same people who today make money in bed with those who wish to destroy Western civilization; they are perfectly respectable, they are pillars of society, who do lots of worthy and laudable things for people in need. But in fifty years, when the atrocities have been raked over, they will be called war criminals too; and others will have stepped in to take their place. Case says, I saw a chance to make money and I took it; Madeline is just the same. There are many who should be uncomfortable with these sentiments.

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